Overlooking Malta’s historic Marsamxett harbour, within the remains of San Salvatore Bastion (whose ramparts date back to the Order of Saint John), one of Malta’s most ambitious and exciting projects is slowly taking shape, breathing new life into a spectacular, if somewhat dilapidated, historic jewel.
MICAS (Malta International Contemporary Art Space) is a 7,000m² arts venue that will cement the island’s status as a key player on the international stage. Officially launched last year with the help of the Arts Council Malta, MICAS is a flagship of the country’s resurgent arts programme. Once it opens in 2022, it will not only offer an attractive platform for the biggest names in contemporary art to exhibit their work, but an education facility, ensuring the legacy of Malta’s future creative industry.
Located in Floriana, a fortified town in the southeastern region of Malta that neighbours the capital Valetta, MICAS is a shining case study for the sustainable regeneration of an under-utilised historical site. Its design emphasises high connectivity and flexible spaces, with terraces that echo the historical levels of the Floriana Lines – the original fortifications that were first built in the 17th century and withstood attack from French, British and Ottoman forces. Overseen by the Restoration Directorate, a government-backed team of multi-disciplinary experts, the space will unite the constituent elements of this vast site, enabling Maltese residents to re-connect with the remains of their heritage in a way they were previously unable to (the site was off-limits for the last 60 years).
Encompassing the San Salvatore Bastions, which comprises the Ospizio – originally built as a refuge for stray and illegitimate girls before becoming police headquarters, and the Sa Maison gardens, former home to British army regiments, the balance of inner and outer, lower and upper, man-made and natural holds the key to the site’s enormous potential. Connecting the two sections is the Arco Barbara, a skewed arch named after its Maltese architect Giovanni Barbara (principal architect of the Order), and an astonishing feat in engineering that had to be partially excavated to reveal the full genius of its helix design. The arch will be converted into a main atrium, providing views over the Sa Maison marina and gardens on one side and the upper bastion levels to the other. Across the arch, an expansive open space will be transformed into a sculpture garden, which will house permanent collections and new works.
Ruth Bianco, MICAS’ art director, has been closely involved in the project since it was conceived in 2012. For Bianco, there is a welcomed irony in re-purposing a site originally designed for conflict. “This extensive conversion from the earlier functions of these military defences that once served as an architectural ‘weapon’ to rebut, protect, and ward off intruders now takes on a revamped purpose, opening itself to the world to embrace diversity, creativity and unity through art.”
When it comes to its annual programme, Bianco envisages a dynamic and ever-changing space, one where “something is always happening”, that is capable of speaking to the diverse range of audiences MICAS is expected to attract. “It will host at least one major international exhibition a year along with other concurrent activities, keynote curators and guest speakers, fundraising events, educational and outreach initiatives,” says Bianco. “The immediate task is to form international networks and create the museum’s formal development and operational strategies.”
In addition, the space will act as talent incubator, ensuring both established and emerging artists are granted similar levels of exposure and support. “A diverse outreaching operational concept is envisaged that will include artist-in-residence programmes, a resourceful research perspective, learning programmes and visual dialogues, artist-led in-situ workshops and international exchanges” says Bianco.
In keeping with that philosophy, the Sa Maison gardens currently host the radiant, an exhibition of imposing stone monolithic sculptures by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, who dedicated the works to the children of Malta. This October will see MICAS stage work by French artist Pierre Huyghe in conjunction with the Serpentine Galleries London, to be curated by the Serpentine’s artistic director Hans-Ulrich Obrist, who will also lead discussion panels with key international speakers.
For more information on the 2019 programme and future updates visit micas.art.