The project to restore the Northern Defences to its former glory is considered one of the most complex schemes ever attempted in one of the most derelict and abandoned areas of the Upper Rock. But rather than the shirk the challenge, Carl Viagas saw it as an opportunity to create a heritage-rich tourist attraction which would rival all others in Gibraltar, and with a very low budget into the bargain. We caught up with the government architect responsible for both the King’s Bastion Leisure Centre and the Gibraltar International Bank to ask him what were the main obstacles to his restoration plans and how he managed to overcome them.
“In all cases we were talking of sheer manpower as there was no possibility of getting plant or vehicles up there and it would all have to be done by hand,” said the architect employed by the Government for most heritage-sensitive sites. “During the summer when most of the work was being done, you could appreciate the effort of the crew working seven hours a day under the scorching heat. By ten in the morning everyone was exhausted. Therefore the main challenge was the logistics of making it happen on the ground.
“There have been clean-up campaigns in the past but they have not yielded significant benefit so the general public has avoided the area because of the anti-social behaviour that had been going on,” reported Viagas. “It is incredible what has been deposited over decades and how certain people have even thrown motorcycles in such a remote area. Over 500 tons of rubble have been removed from the Puerta de Granada area as part of the enabling package and, since July, we have focused on removing what could amount to around 200 tons of rubble from the pathways and tunnels, while vegetation has been cut back to expose the original steps, ramps and galleries.”
The first attempt to tackle the project was back in 2002 but, with different priorities at the time, it was discontinued. It was only when Deputy Chief Minister Joseph Garcia from the GSLP/Liberal coalition agreed to fund the project that work could finally go ahead. One of the reasons previous administrations had been discouraged from developing the area was the lack of access to the site, with the Road to the Lines being a purely pedestrian walkway from the lower side, an entrance from Casemates or Grand Battery being quite limited and a potential second entrance at Moorish Castle Communication was blocked up.
In what was quite a remarkable feat of modern engineering on a small budget Viagas came up with a plan based around chute on the side of a scaffolding tower from Grand Battery all the way up to Castle Battery. Equipment and materials such as gravel and were hoisted up with a crane system while health and safety decisions were made about alterations to the original architecture.
“What was always seen as an impossible task that was going to cost millions, has been achieved in less than a year on a very conservative budget,” continued the heritage expert. “The ability to break up a project into small chunks and to manage and transfer personnel from one to the other has made it all possible. There were only a certain amount of people you could put on the site at the same time. Even if we had 200 workers there was only one chute and one skip so, like a chemical reaction it became the one agent that would slow down everything else. This meant that we could only have an average of 15 persons working at one time as any more would have made it difficult to carry out the work properly.
“The final areas in progress are the King’s and Queen’s Lines where the Royal Engineers have been assisting to create an independent space which will not be open to the public at this stage. On the whole though, it’s not very different to the Upper Rock except that some of the areas are connected by tunnels as a certain outcrop would have had to be drilled through with around 500m of tunnels being opened up.”
He said health and safety was an issue because, if overdone, it would result in the spoiling of the historic site’s heritage value, while if he took that concern too far it could destroy the monument altogether. “By the same token we need to accept that there would be a couple of structures that were fine 200 years ago that would nowadays be considered a hazard,” he continued. “One of those such issues was the boundary wall to the site with Crutchett’s Ramp becoming unstable to the point it was on the verge of collapse when we started removing rubble from the other side. Sections of the wall were temporarily reinforced whilst awaiting a final DPC decision, which, on the whole, leads me to suggest the compromises that have been struck are all very positive.
The value of the Northern Defences, not only as a heritage site, but also for the construction accomplishment it was in its day, was evident to Viagas when he started undertaking the clean-up, as he told BG: “Every few steps there is a different feature, be it a tunnel, stairway or chamber carved out of the rock face, bombproof barracks and magazines - many which are still standing today almost in their original condition, even though they date as far back as medieval times.
There has not been an attempt to refurbish many of these barracks to make them look clean or pretty. In fact, having moss or lichen growing on them adds the age factor, while impact damage on some of the buildings gives it value in terms of providing the scars of time.” The newly cleared paths will provide limited disabled access from Moorish Castle Estate, with the current enabling package creating the possibility for certain structures being refurbished as restaurants, cafes and gift shops. There are also possibilities of using certain open spaces for picnic tables or children’s entertainment with the breath taking views across the northern end of the city and Spain.
For those who have not experienced it first-hand, the Northern Defences spread all the way from the Tower of Homage down to Landport and north to just behind Laguna Estate, from where you can access the Great Siege Tunnels. The new tourist attraction would in principle start at the corner of Casemates winding its way upwards towards Princess Caroline’s Battery. From this point, originally the main access point to ‘the jungle’, (which had become a huge rubbish dump and where so much anti-social behaviour had been observed) paths wind their way upwards and downwards towards a network of tunnels that lead to King’s and Queen’s Lines.
Viagas concluded that he felt they had done a lot of positive work in clearing up a new area of Gibraltar for our grandchildren: “Each chapter has its own value, as each era of military fortification is built on top of the other. However, we have used a number of internationally recognised conservation charters drafted by UNESCO to guide us, with a number being against the reconstruction of a monument without documentary evidence to support it. Such a practice would be considered to be falsifying history and Viagas feels that in sites such as the Bank and the Leisure Centre it was necessary to put in some materials that were necessary to modernise buildings. “These projects are the sort of projects I find the most challenging as I was presented with two bold lines on a canvas and had to adapt them to the new technology available without negatively affecting the original. This combination of the old with the new has inherent value in that it is a mix of idealism and pragmatism, using structures which previously had only their heritage value, to create profit, financially or socially, but are now the landscape of tomorrow.”