The flyover inauguration ceremony felt partly endearing and partly like a strange spectacle of sorts for a culturally starved dystopia.
Andrew Borg Wirth (with Maria Theuma)
Collage by the IotL Magazine (contains a picture by Jeremy Wonnacott, DOI)
I’m obsessed with the obsession with idols. What makes someone tattoo the Prime Minister’s face on their body? What drives someone to hang a photograph of Dom Mintoff alongside an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in their living room? In the 1990s, how did the merchandise department of Eddie Fenech Adami’s political party never fall short of providing his supporters with the most iconic of slogan wear? What makes parents paint Tinker Bells above their child’s bed? And how is it that an ex-reality TV star is the President of the United States of America and, arguably, the most influential man in the world?
Apart from the appeal of power, I think it’s all related to the question of narrative. If you can tell a good story, all you have to do is captivate a sizeable audience and you’ve got half the game in the bag. It’s hardly about truth or honesty because, let’s face it, if that were the case, most of the people whom we are currently being influenced and governed by wouldn’t be there in the first place.
What I’m trying to get at is that nostalgia is just as much about a constructed narrative as it is about an actual, yearned-for past.
For instance, there is a lot about the U.S., Dubai and The Walt Disney Company’s theme parks that is built on it—the kind of nostalgia that scholar, writer and artist Svetlana Boym defines as the longing for a place that never existed, rather than for something that once existed and is now long gone. I’m deeply fascinated by these case studies, and they have informed the approach that I’ve taken in my research interests surrounding the current generation of architecture and polittalk in Malta. On closer inspection, parallels can be drawn between the Maltese contemporary condition and the ambitions and aspirations that the above-mentioned places stand for.
The most iconic sights that visitors at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida get to witness are the various large parades that typically take place in front of Cinderella Castle. The castle is the flagship attraction at the centre of the park’s so-called Magic Kingdom, and also serves as a worldwide recognised symbol of The Walt Disney Company. At the parade, large floats pass by, bringing to Gargantuan life the past—or at least a past, recognisable to those of us, now adults, who, while growing up, had their stories and fantasies calibrated through the lens of a distinctly Disney-fied cultural sensibility, like a rite of passage we all were codified to undergo in our childhood.
Having attended the parades myself a few years ago, I found it to be an especially anxiety-inducing experience. What exactly was being celebrated? Who was it for? The parade found its culmination in the overpowering presence of the castle, that towered above the crowd of people in a literal sense, but that offered no actual volumetric space for us to experience. The castle was but a doorway to the rest of the theme park; an architectural image that did little more than trigger the collective imagination while simultaneously and momentarily capturing an indefinite sense of nostalgia—a nostalgia which, those of us who had gathered there, found ourselves all bizarrely sharing, despite all hailing from different parts of the world.
There is a lot about the U.S., Dubai and The Walt Disney Company’s theme parks that is built on it—the kind of nostalgia, the longing for a place that never existed, rather than for something that once existed and is now long gone.
Reflections on the gate that sits at a roundabout between Fleur De Lys and Imrieħel in Malta set off a similar thought process.
As an exercise in pastiche, the gate isn’t the product of an actual historical inheritance, but an idiom of a kind of nostalgia that, for a while, fermented in the minds of people, conjuring up the memory of a monument that history once erased, and that, finally, once again found its actualisation in 2012, when the gate was re-built. In theory, the newly reconstructed gate serves no purpose, original or otherwise, in connection to the Wignacourt Aqueduct, and, very much like Cinderella Castle at Disney World, once you’ve walked (driven) past it, its total architectural experience can be said to have been had.
Boym’s discussion of “phantom homelands” is very intriguing in this regard, and especially in relation to an event that happened in Malta on Friday, September 20, which was live streamed on national television and online platforms. The main media headline portentously announced: “Prime Minister Joseph Muscat inaugurates the first flyovers of the Marsa Junction Project”.
Maltese comedy duo Daniel Chircop and Chrysander Agius, who also typically go by their stage name ‘Danusan’, hosted the press conference segment of the event that was aimed at giving coverage of the newly inaugurated (one-third of) the new Marsa flyover. Just like a Disney character or mascot would stand at the head of Cinderella Castle’s boulevard and signal the official commencement of the Disney parade, Danusan opened the ceremony by welcoming the Prime Minister and Minister responsible for this project.
In one particular moment that felt uncannily reminiscent of the Disney Stars and Motor Cars Parade, a procession of vintage cars was ushered in, inaugurating the flyover’s official opening for public use. (At one point, Agius made an off-hand remark about the resemblance of one of the cars to Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, the eponymous magical flying car of the 1968 British-American musical adventure fantasy film. Of course, Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang isn’t part of the Disney film studio’s repertoire, but it’s interesting to note, in such a context, that it owes its musical numbers to Robert and Richard Sherman, whose list of accreditations includes the music for Disney’s Mary Poppins. In fact, Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang marked the Sherman brothers’ first score outside of the Disney empire.)
In one particular moment that felt uncannily reminiscent of the Disney Stars and Motor Cars Parade, a procession of vintage cars was ushered in, inaugurating the flyover’s official opening for public use.
Danusan explained to television viewers that we were about to witness the arrival of “a group of people who had expressed interest in being the first to ride on the new flyover”. An old, now defunct, yellow Maltese bus on which, we had been made to understand, the first members of the public to ever use the flyover were being ushered in, slowly came into focus on our television screens. It felt partly endearing and partly like a strange spectacle of sorts for a culturally starved dystopia. The people that had been present at the earlier press conference were edged on by Danusan to show appreciation: “I think they deserve a round of applause!” Agius exclaimed, triggering a polite ripple of half-hearted clapping from his audience.
None of these items—vintage vehicles, Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang references, a national celebration of the completion of (one-third of) a piece of road infrastructure—should technically constitute any part of the contemporary narrative we live in, but on September 20, 2019, they all did.
Even the traditional yellow bus, despite its indubitable Maltese-ness, ended up looking somewhat asynchronous in this particular scenario—given that the event was meant to highlight the state of the art design, accessibility and feasibility of Malta’s infrastructural future, wouldn’t it, perhaps, have made more sense to have a bus from the current ‘tallinja’ fleet? On the other hand, we were presented with a yellow bus—or rather, its image and memory, juxtaposed with the ‘newness’ of a government’s progress.
We were presented with a yellow bus—or rather, its image and memory, juxtaposed with the ‘newness’ of a government’s progress.
And just like the protagonists at Disney World, our ministers and idols waved at everyone and noone in particular, and the public watching from their homes smiled, not sure for what, overwhelmed by a moment they didn’t even know they had been longing for. With such narratives, the justification of power is translated into and imposed on the masses as a form of entertainment (which said masses are expected to find legible and diverting)—and controversial decisions, such as the building of new roads, become a spectacle of national identity.
Andrew Borg Wirth is a recent architecture graduate from the University of Malta, whose studies are invested in architecture as an implication of greater contemporary social and political narratives. In 2019, Andrew was awarded the prize for Best M.Arch. Dissertation as part of the Emanuele Galizia Awards by the Kamra Tal-Periti.