Richard England


Standing at the strategic crossroads of the Mediterranean, halfway between Sicily and North Africa, the tiny island of Malta has been inhabited from as early as 5000 BC, and successively occupied thereafter by most of the region's dominant civilisations.

Few of these, however, left many permanent traces, and what one sees today is chiefly the two and a half century legacy of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, a religious and military order founded during the first Crusade to the 'Holy Land.'....The British occupation that followed on from that of the Knights lasted nearly two centuries, but had little effect on this remarkable manmade landscape, save perhaps for the Nazi bombs their presence invited during World War II. Instead, it was the coming of independence in 1964, and the subsequent need to encourage tourism as an essential part of an independent economy, that has produced the most dramatic changes. From around 20,000 in 1960, the numb rod seasonal visitors to the island quickly rose to a peak of 730,000 in 1980, double the permanent population!

The programme of building necessitated by this extraordinary growth has unfortunately produced little new architecture of merit, with the notable exception of the work of the Maltese architect, Richard England. From the very beginning of his career in his father's practice, the young England was acutely aware that the boom in tourism brought with it not only economic benefits and opportunities to build, but also presented a potential threat to the same unique character of the island that the tourists had come to admire and enjoy.

As an architect, England's personal response to this threat to Malta's identity was founded on a deeply felt compulsion, amounting to a sacred duty, to respect the sense of place or 'genius loci' that is Malta's. These days, when many architects are once again striving to build in way amore sensitive to the existing character of a place and culture, regionalism in architecture is no longer frowned upon as a quaint or retrogressive tendency. But at the time England began to formulate his own regionalism, it was very much out of keeping with the still dominant internationalist line of the Modern Movement.

From: Transformations: Richard England; 25 Years of Architecture. 1987, pp. 9-10.

Twenty or thirty years on, it is possible to wonder at England's prescience, not only in anticipating Vatican II, but also in producing a work of architecture which vividly expresses so many themes, now familiar, but barely discernible on the architectural and ideological horizon at the time of conception. Themes too, which have been given richly ambiguous interpretations at Manikata: an architecture that is part of the landscape, yet also different from its surroundings; an architecture rooted in pre-history, yet also expressing the future; a democratic architecture built for the people by the people, yet anything but populist; a specific architecture for a specific place, yet also abstract in the extreme; a place of communal assembly and worship, yet also a place for personal dialogue and meditation. A complementary tandem of simplicity and complexity runs throughout the design, anticipating by several years Robert Venturi's call for an architecture of 'complexity and contradiction' as an alternative to orthodox Modernism. But while Venturi propagated a rampant historicism to displace it, England followed the example of [Gio] Ponti and Team 10, and found the answer in an enriched and more responsive Modernity.

Today, Manikata Church stands as a telling rebuke to those architects and commentators who maintain that to communicate, architecture must carry a big sign before it and strike a big drum wherever it goes. As this story shows, the church communicates the most profound meanings, not always immediately, but in diverse and subtle ways. As such, Manikata Church reminds us of the continuing power of Modern architecture - in the right hands - to surprise us and its critics, with its range and depth and its capacity to meet the most demanding of spiritual as well as material needs.

From: Manikata Church; Richard England. Academy Editions, 1995, p. 45.