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Richard England - The Great Chameleon

He is now 83 years-old and, a glance at his curriculum vitae gives the impression that he has lived several lives. He has an undiminished work ethic and is capable of multi-tasking and equally at home designing a building as he is writing a poem. Professor England has distinguished himself in various artistic mediums but especially architecture. He is a successful architect who has designed distinctive buildings not only here but way beyond our shores. He is also an artist of repute, a writer, a poet and a sculptor. I would also like to add thinker and philosopher. His speeches peppered with favorite quotations, are memorable. He is a popular speaker and much sought after to speak in Maltese, English or Italian.

He has published numerous books on architecture, his art, his poetry and what is possibly his chef d’oeuvre, published last year: Chambers of Memory: Roaming the Mansions of Mnemosyne a book about his life, career experiences and his rich humanistic outlook. Professor Richard England is the very definition of presence and subdued elegance. In spite of his eminence he has an approachable manner and is gentle and modest. He hides tremendous thrust and energy under a deceptive surface of calm. However, you can almost hear his mind ticking. What will his next project be? He never knew his mother for she died at childbirth. He says of his father, a successful architect: “Of all the gifts my father gave me, the greatest was his belief in me; always a pivotal anchor, friend and mentor and above all an endearing and caring parent.” His father’s departure from this world was sudden.ProfessorEngland recalls:“InApril1969, after an afternoon picnic at my father’s former wartime troglodyte shelter in Mellieha, walking back to the car my father collapsed, fell, and by the time I reached him, he had already passed away. Apart from the anguish of the moment, even worse was the agonizing experience of having to drive back to our St Julian’s home with my father’s corpse next to me in the car: an indelible, painful and haunting experience.”

Who were his mentors? He mentions Gio Ponti (1891-1979). “He was a Renaissance man of extraordinary versatility with whom I had the privilege of working for a two-year period in his studio in Milan as a student-architect, a period which was to prove one of the most influential of my whole architectural education.” Sir Basil Spence (1907-1976), the most celebrated and acclaimed architect in the Fifties, Sixties and part of the Seventies who had a house in Malta was another mentor. The third mentor Professor England mentions was the artist Victor Pasmore (1908-1998) who, too, had a house in Malta. Professor England comments: “I consider myself fortunate to have had Pasmore, one of the giants of the British twentiethcentury art scene, as a personal friend and teacher. To have a personality of this calibre and stature as mentor and pedagogue is a unique and exhilarating educational experience.” There were another two important mentors in his life: Professor Quentin Hughes: “His savant qualities as tutor, advisor and mentor remain influences in all the annals of my life.” And the Rev. Prof. Peter Serracino Inglott (1936-2012) “Priest, philosopher, one-time University rector, clown manqué and the closest and dearest of all my influential mentors.”

Also mentioned is our very own Emvin Cremona (1919-1987), the eminent Maltese artist and stamp designer. And I do not want to forget the British artist Julian Trevelyan (1910-1988). Professor England comments: “They gave me their time, they gave me their wisdom. No greater gift can be given.” Art is in the family genes. Prof. England’s wife, Myriam is an Ikebana expert and both his daughter Sandrina and son Marc are artists in their own right. Marc is also a composer. Sandrina’s children, Christina, Richard, Nicholas and Damian draw, sculpt and paint with ease and talent. What advice does he give to his grandchildren? “My recommendations are three:

Faced with hostility, reach out a hand of friendship; diminish love, mould love but never destroy love; remember that the most precious gift you can give is time, time from your own limited time.” Professor England has left an indelible imprint on the course of Maltese architecture during the second half of the 20th century.“To build the new we have to understand the old,” he says. When asked about his favourite projects he replies: “My projects are all my children. I cannot choose among them.” His architecture has left indelible marks wherever he practiced it but especially on his island home. His Manikata church of St Joseph (1962- 1974), in the hamlet of Manikata prompted Chris Abel, the architectural writer, teacher and theorist to comment: “Manikata is a masterly work of architecture.” This is considered to be Professor England’s magnum opus and the Maltese counterpart to Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp. In 1982 he designed a private garden in their family home, for his wife and muse Myriam. ““A place of meditation and spiritual solace.”

St James Centre for Creativity remains a living testimony to Professor England’s creative powers in reconciling the old with the new, for he is a firm believerthat the architect must not only be the designer of the future but also the defender of the past. There were unrealised projects, too. A villa girna, a curvilinear villa modelled on the typology of the vernacular Maltese dry-wall girna toolsheds; a tourist village in Comino; a multi-purpose theatre on the site of the original Neo-Classic nineteenth-century building in Valletta, designed by Edward Middleton Barry, which was bombed in World War II. Yet another unrealised project was designed for the Valletta Parliament, a scheme which spanned over three decades. A Hal-Farrug church and a Filfla chapel, too, were planned though never realised. A recent project which cannot be left out is The Dar Il-Hanin Samaritan Meditation Garden in Santa Venera (2010-2014) – “a project which was conceived more as a theatre for the soul than a stage for the body.” The late architectural critic Charles Knevitt described the garden as ‘a cavernous accumulation of solids surrounded by a much larger area of voids, almost Piranesian in scale and ambition. This is the architect at his most consummate and playful.’ This is a project also admired by the Ground Zero architect Daniel Libeskind. It is impossible that such a literate and cultured man wasn’t influenced by literary works. Professor England is a voracious reader as is evident from the several bookcases and neat stacks of books in his home but especially in his study

Here are a few examples of books which have influenced him. Gio Ponti’s Amate L’Architettura for which he has a special penchant. “The book is more a paen to the poetics of architecture than a pedagogical text. I remember discussing the book with him, at the time of my stay in his studio. I particularly treasure a copy of the English version, In Praise of Architecture, given to me as a parting gift, signed and dedicated by Ponti.” Antoine St Exupery’s The Little Prince is another favourite, a book from which Professor England likes to quote in his speeches and writings. Here is a favourite quote: “It is only with the heart that one can see correctly, that which is essential is invisible to the eyes.” Quoting Ben Okri. the Nigerian poet and novelist – “Creativity should always be a form of prayer” – he mentions Okri’s Astonishing the Gods and says of his writing: “Okri sculpts and paints with words, with an extraordinary ability.” Other favourite books are The Diary of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain. “Twain’s narration of the Biblical tale is one of the most amusing, delightful, and entertaining narratives that I have ever come across.” It is impossible for me to end this interview without mentioning his love of the tenor voice. He is an avid collector of that voice on record and has a collection of over twelve thousand discs. His favourite tenors? “Enrico Caruso, Jussi Björ

Mario Lanza, Giuseppe Di Stefano and Joseph Calleja. Malta is proud to have such a resplendent son,” he says of the latter. He has a mantelpiece of awards and they keep on coming in, the latest, the Lifetime Achievement Award from Arts Council Malta. A man of infinite variety, Richard England is unpredictable and even late in his very productive life he can still surprise the world. It is almost ridiculous to ask him what he likes about living in Malta. He could be living anywhere in the world and be equally successful but his attachment to these islands is more than skin deep. His work is evidence enough. Through his architecture and art he has helped to preserve in us a love and respect for our past that no civilisation can dispense with. This is hardly the last word on Richard England. There is no space in this interview for details. These are just brushstrokes of a life well-lived. It is no more than a snapshot. Always positive and a man of manifest spirituality and humanity his parting shot is: “Somebody up there loves me.”


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