A second fermentation in Malta

A second fermentation in Malta

World Architecture Festival

Malta is a tiny outcrop of rock – or, more accurately an archipelago of tiny outcrops – in the geological no-man’s-land of the seabed of the southern Mediterranean, between Sicily and Libya, writes Jeremy Melvin. Less volcanic than the latter, the complex local geology makes it prone to earthquakes from either European or African tectonic plates. It has no natural freshwater other than rain.

Aerial view with brewery approaching completion, April 1949. Photo: Farsons

But the greatest geographical influence is its position in the sea. Around it the Mediterranean, the forum, highway and transport hub of the ancient world, narrows to an extent that sea travellers will inevitably come into contact with each other. The range of civilisations that have washed over Malta testifies to its strategic importance: the unknown people who built Europe’s oldest stone structures there, Phoenicians, on their way between Tyre and Cornwall who gave it the base for its unique language, Romans, Muslims, Normans, Crusader knights, Aragonese, French, Italians – who gave its population much of its gene pool – and the British, who infused numerous loan words into its language, and from whom independence was finally gained in 1964.

The restored main entrance, formerly to the brewery, now to Trident Park. The boardroom is directly above it and the conference room directly behind it. Photo: Joe Smith

North Elevation, sowing the retained faced and new business wings behind it. Image: Ritchie Studio

Along the way, its inhabitants survived two epic sieges: the Knights of Malta saw off the Ottomans in 1565, and as a British colony in 1942, when the 15 August convoy and its stricken flagship, the giant tanker Ohio, limped into the Grand Harbour. Malta was within days of having to surrender to the Axis powers of Germany and Italy. But resupplied, it played a vital role in preventing reinforcement of the German Afrika Korps, which within a year had itself been decimated and its remnants evacuated to Europe. (The island itself was the recipient of the George Cross for its heroic siege resistance, presented by George VI.)

Given this history of epic events, it might seem unlikely that a brewery could play a significant role. But the country’s largest brewer, Farsons, has deeply embedded itself in national life on so many levels that a good case could be made for it. Part of that is the sheer scale of the great brewery it built in the middle of the 20th century. Deliberately located on agricultural land beyond the city of Valletta (in Birkirkara), with access to water from Artesian wells, its design brought a sense of modernity to Malta, It has a 200m long art deco façade and its impressive brewhouse which incorporated the latest brewing technology and equipment.

The dramatic but inviting 25m single span bridge leading to the Brewhouse entrance. Photo: Joe Smith

Here, beer was brewed for over half a century, supplying not just for Malta but the Middle East and North Africa. When technology began to overtake the 1950s equipment over the last couple of decades, the company decided to find new uses for the magnificent building which preserved its main attributes, to designs by Ian Ritchie’s Ritchie Studio. Gradually occupied over the last 18 months, it was inaugurated in June with an impressive cast of guests, which included the Prime Minister, the leader of the Opposition and the Archbishop, such is Farsons’ heft in the country. That continues into its new tenants which include an agency of the Government of Malta, a bank and potentially an embassy.

Restored features include the boardroom directly above the main entrance, much of the equipment in the brewhouse, polished and refurbished to a pristine standard. They help to tell the story of brewing, and the history of the company, as well as making attractive features for its series of bars, cafes and other leisure amenities such as a brand store, approached by a dramatic bridge from the main road. Many of the bars spill out onto roof terraces at various levels and looking in different directions.

Three D section through one of the Brewhouse atria, showing how the various bars spill onto roof terraces: Image: Ritchie Studio

The original façade is also retained and restored. The central entrance leading to the first floor boardroom has an opulent grandeur befitting a high quality location, and leads to a new conference facility. Behind most of facade, though, industrial structures were removed and replaced with a series of wings, running perpendicular to the façade and interspersed with courtyards and connected with walkways. Though the footprints of the wings and courtyards are similar, they are made identifiable by a subtle range of colours, artfully placed to maximise their interplay with sunlight, shadow from balconies and railings, and the brilliant white background. The effect is a contemporary, and dynamic, interpretation of the tradition of delicate, abstract Islamic decoration found across the Mediterranean, while the courtyards are modern interpretations of the courtyards of traditional Maltese buildings.

All this also makes for extremely attractive workspaces. The wings are narrow enough for cross ventilation, which with chilled pipes embedded in the structure, means they do not need air conditioning, a remarkable feat under this almost African sun. Windows of various shapes give glimpses to the courtyards without compromising privacy between the wings. Each wing has its own stair and lift tower, meaning they stand outside the office footprint giving an extremely efficient and flexible floorplate. A restricted range of forms, colours and materials helps the towers and the walkways which joint them to reach the apogee of the compositional principle, of framing views, offsetting sun, shadow and colour so that the new interventions delicately comment and enhance what is already there, rather than bombastically challenge the context.

Three D render of the upper floor of the Brewhouse. Image: Ritchie Studio

The brewery itself is about a century old but has longer roots. Simonds, a brewer based in Reading, a town to the west of London, appointed a Maltese agent in 1875 to supply beer to the British garrison. These were heady days for Malta, as becoming part of the British Empire allowed to exploit its natural advantages as the nexus of trade routes. Meanwhile the Farrugia family had established itself in the food trade with a flour mill and pasta factory which burnt down during Anti-British riots in 1919. Lewis Farrugia, aspiring to be an architect, designed a replacement which manufactured industrial gases. They started to supply Co2 to Simonds. In 1927, Lewis, by then an influential family member, persuaded his relations to diversify into brewing and using the Anglicised name Farsons, quickly became popular with British troops.

Historic boiling coppers in the restored brewhall of the Brewhouse. Photo: Jean Claude Vancell

Installing the coppers in 1948. Photo: Roderick Grech/Farsons

The market was crowded, so Simonds suggested a merger between its Maltese operations and Farsons, which took place in 1929. The company remained in operation apart from 13 weeks in 1942 due to shortage of fuel oil. Its growth, largely through supplying British forces, meant that the existing brewery was too small. Lewis Farrugia, by this stage chairman of the company, took a long-term view by acquiring the new site and ensuring it had options for expansion. Meanwhile he could return to his original profession of architecture and produced designs for the new complex. His initial proposals were developed by the Scottish architect William Bryce Binnie, known in Malta for designing the Hotel Phoenicia, and in the rest of the world for the old Highbury Stadium, long-time home of the Arsenal football club.

It is largely a reinforced concrete structure with some stone dressing, built by JL Kier, who with their relation Ove Arup as an employee, pioneered reinforced concrete structure in the UK in the 1930s. What makes it remarkable is its carefully crafted appearance and its control of proportion and detail, which means it has retained its presence as the area around it has developed.

In 1948, about two years into construction of the new brewery, another rival, the Cisk (pronounced chisk) company, owned by the Scicluna family, suggested merging to create Simonds Farsons Cisk. That was the company that took possession of the new building in 1950. It swept all local competition before it – between 1956 and 1992 they were the only brewers in Malta, and despite political fluctuations across the Mediterranean they were able to expand their export markets. At home Lewis Farrugia insisted that corporations should also contribute to civic, public and cultural life, which perhaps underpinned the company’s success as much as his insistence on adopted the latest technology. Farsons still supports a number of local charities.

Sketch for the courtyard landscaping in Trident Park, showing the variety of plants each with different scents and colours. Image: Ritchie Studio

The company’s history unfolded from the magnificent building complex that Lewis Farrugia conceived and nurtured. As he realised, the demands on space and new technology would need new buildings, which the large site provided. During a period where many famous breweries lost their independence and identity to become absorbed within an ever- decreasing number of ever larger companies, Farsons remained distinct and independent, aided by adding to its ‘customer experience’ by developing its range of brands and so its customer base.

Looking through the new southern walkways across one of the courtyards towards the retained façade. Photo: Ritchie Studio

In 1980, Lewis’ son Louis became the CEO and recognised that over time the company would have to develop a new brewery. Masterplanning started in the middle of that decade. As far as possible all operations would be on the site, but as the plan came into operation early in the 21st century, it posed the question of what to do with the original complex. The family were aware of the dangers of losing their heritage (as Watney’s did when they moved from the Stag Place site near London’s Victoria Station), and which Whitbread avoided by turning their Chiswell Street brewery on the edge of the City of London – reputedly the world’s first industrialised brewery – into a leisure and events venue. This has almost nothing to do with brewing but a great deal to do with heritage. For Farsons, the sentimental and social attachment to the building was even greater: it had been designed by the visionary figure who in effect created the company, and its size, scale and quality made it an important part of Malta’s social as well as architectural fabric.

At night echoes of historic Maltese architecture are especially strong. Photo: Michael Farrugia

Extensive commercial studies explored what the old brewery could become. After travelling to numerous ‘heritage’ brewing and industrial sites across Europe, Louis Farrugia and his colleagues concluded that the old brewhouse, with its unusual historic and design features, could be devoted to leisure, with the rest of the site developed as a business park. That could exploit the lack his high-quality workspace in Malta and take advantage of the expected economic growth from joining the EU. The new park would be give the name ‘Trident Park’ – Farsons has as a symbol a statue of the sea-god Neptune who always carries a trident, and which would also be the name for a separate development business to the brewing business. All that helped to set a brief for an architect yet to be chosen.

Farsons went to a great deal of effort to find the right architect. Ian Ritchie’s name was mentioned early, but they picked a shortlist of 12, narrowed it to six and ensured that all the potential architects were given opportunities to visit the brewery and react to the emerging brief. They also wanted to ensure the right local associated firm in the case of an international lead. What they found when they visited Ritchie Studio, apart from the obvious blend of engineering and creative thought that permeates it, and the visual elegance of its work, was that Ian Ritchie wanted a dialogue, rather than to impose a solution. He teamed up with Maltese engineer professor Alex Torpiano, and his engineering/architecture practice TBA periti, who helped develop the approach to understanding a effectively reusing the building fabric.

The courtyards are social as well as environmental spaces. Photo: Joe Smith

The ensuing dialogue covered many issues, from appropriate uses for the existing buildings to commercial viability, but one of the most important was sustainability. As he showed when he commissioned the pioneering passive energy process building for the brewery by Peak Short. which opened in 1990, Louis Farrugia had long been concerned about Malta’s environment. Farsons is a large user of water and has profound interest in the impact of climate change, resonating with Ritchie’s interests in inventive use of building fabric and materials. That reinforced the decision to keep the 1950s brewery and powerfully informed the design of the new wings in the business park, both the cooling pipes in the fabric and the filigree like shading.

Sunlight turns the walkways, stairs, shafing and balconies into delicate and dynamic visual experience. Photo: Ritchie Studio

Much of the environmental strategy, explain Ritchie and his collaborator, the Bath-based engineer Doug King, follows traditional approaches. They looked closely at traditional Maltese architecture and noted how courtyards provide shade, fresh air and, for office workers, attractive views, as well as details such as balconies to provide shade – which can be enhanced to create a dynamic play of light and shadow. Architecture and engineering, technology and aesthetics, all merge in the experiential effect.

Co-working space once used for fermentation vats. Note the colours on the window soffits, which relate to the adjacent courtyards on either side. Photo: Joe Smith

Meanwhile the reinforced concrete structure proved robust enough to be opened up in strategic places, to create new spatial configurations for the new pattern of occupation. That meant that in the former brewhouse, new spaces and volumes could be created to provide amenities for visitors and views of the marvellously preserved brewing coppers.

Overall this is an extremely impressive example of reusing an old industrial building. It is impossible to identify any single feature as the most impressive, so well integrated is every design decision and every feature, new and old. Much of its success depends on how it works in the Maltese context, deploying sunlight and to some extent heat into elements within the design, plus the local relationships Farsons has built up over more than a century, and the local knowledge of construction that Prof Torpiano brought to the project.

There may be many reasons to visit Malta, from seeing Europe’s oldest stone structures, to the majesty of the Valletta’s Grand Harbour, or the austere grandeur of its former capital, the hilltop town of Mdina, but anyone visiting those obvious tourist magnets may enjoy visiting the brewery as much as a pint of Pale Ale or Cisk.

The boardroom, renovated and named after Lewis Farrugia. Photo: Joe Smith

For anyone interested in finding out more about this project, short of a trip to Malta, Farsons and Ritchie Studio have collaborated to produce an impressive book on it: Renewal Architecture, £30, www.unicornpublishing.org

Founder Partner

Headline Partners