The Maltese gallarija (or wooden closed balcony) is one of the vernacular architectural features which is slowly disappearing from the Maltese architectural landscape in the name of ‘progress’. In the past building booms, its longevity was perpetuated in metal and aluminium typologies  which, unfortunately, degrade its value… not only on its singular proportions and tactility, but also on the chromatic effect on its indigenous landscape.

In more recent cases, owners of properties with sea and country views are allowing their old timber balconies to disintegrate while installing large glass apertures behind them. A shameful shot which, nevertheless, will eventually secure their unobstructed view.

While authorities attempt to safeguard its survival, there is an increased risk that market forces will have the upper hand on the survival of the gallarija. With soaring market prices of seafront properties, and indeed of any old property enjoying a grand view, it will be evermore difficult for future owners to pay the price of this traditional ‘feature’.

Perit, did you see the view behind my gallarija?”, one client asked;  “I have to stand right next to it to see St. Angelo!”

So we asked ourselves how can we make it disappear from the inside but not from the outside? How can it go, but then come back when he won’t need the view anymore?

This challenge has been the driving force behind this project. Collaborating with traditional craftsmen, we studied, designed and built a prototype that retains all the aesthetic and traditional qualities of the gallarija, but gives it a much-needed new function.

After numerous meetings, sketches and drawings we built a detailed 1:10 timber model which helped everyone understand its complex hinges system. From this, we discovered ways by which to improve its structural stability and ease of opening and closing. The way it looks is identical to the traditional balcony when in its ‘closed’ position; with the operable glass purtell on top and the fixed timber pannew at the bottom. When the central lock is released from the interior, the four large glass apertures hinge out and pack on the side. The same thing happens with the lower timber panels, which unveil the hidden safety glass railing. The first prototype was installed on October 2013 in Valletta, on an apartment facing the Grand Harbour.

The metal locks and hinges are all manufactured by a local blacksmith, and the closing system is based on the spanjuletta method (espagnolette); which secures the large folding parts in place. The remainder is all traditional red-deal construction, built by a local mastrudaxxa (joiner).

We are optimistic our small invention can develop into an object that not only speaks of its time while respecting that of its elders, but also one whose functionality adds value to a dying inheritance. If successful, this added value could sustain its longer lifespan.

The project was awarded a special mention at the 2013 Din l-Art Helwa awards; awarded the Premju Gieh l-Artgjanat Malti in the same year and awarded the 'Best Innovative Build' at the Homeworks Architectural Awards in 2014.

Designed by Chris Briffa Architects and produced in collaboration with Vassallo Joiners.

Patent No. 4343

Images by David Pisani