Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

This site uses cookies. By using our services, you agree to our cookie use.
Learn more here.

Rafael Moneo on John Soane and building on history

2842858053 d050bb324b o

Charting the trajectory of architecture from the days of Sir John Soane, Rafael Moneo deplores today’s capricious forms, urging us to decipher and criticise contemporary culture

First, I’d like to express my deepest gratitude to my English colleagues for their consideration in awarding me this medal established in honour of Sir John Soane. I am well aware of what Soane signifies for architects and for English architecture as a whole.

Soane seemed destined to be an architect from birth, and fatefully his tutelage began under George Dance the Younger. It would be hard for him to have found a better master. Dance, who had spent six years in Rome and had acquired from his father a solid professional training, recognised Soane’s talent and encouraged him to enter the Academy and later to move to Rome. Soane’s time in Rome marks a definitive influence on his career and his life. From the very first moment, he was aware that the Classical canon was no longer the only architectural language and that our architectural heritage allowed liberty in the manipulation of form. His long and fruitful career marks the end of a brilliant era in English architecture that – after the late Baroque of Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh – had its roots in the Palladian style of the early 18th century and which included such notable architects as John Wood, John Nash, the Adams and the Dances. But Soane, who had shown his profound love and respect for Rome in the design of his own home, and his passionate collecting of Classical antiquities, was conscious, perhaps with a certain melancholy, that he would represent the end of the deeply nostalgic English architecture that had taken the Eternal City as its inspiration since the time of Inigo Jones.

Soane knew himself to be an architect and spent all of his life proving so. He did not pretend to be an artist, but an architect, as worthy of respect as that accorded to artists by society. Soane belongs to a generation of architects who assume full responsibility for the execution of their vision – the architect who designs the building and also determines its significance. The building, formerly understood as an artefact, a part of life and nature, as it was conceived by the architects from the Renaissance to the Baroque, now embodies the result of an assemblage of elements thoughtfully composed by the architect. This profile, introduced by Soane, is a premonition, whether we like it or not, of the architect of today.

John soane medal

John soane medal

The Soane Medal. Image courtesy of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

Soane was certain that his work as an architect would be of interest to future historians. We see this in the care he took of his drawings, that has permitted critics and historians to follow the path of his career. And proof of the esteem he held for his work is also apparent in his collaboration with the architect and renowned draughtsman Joseph Michael Gandy. Gandy’s renderings of Soane’s work are just as impressive today whether they depict perfectly realised designs or visions of them as ruins. Gandy’s illustrations of the Bank of England are a perfect example. Soane was aware how the essence of architecture was manifest as equally in its process of construction as it was in the vision of its ruin. He saw his work inscribed in time. The extraordinary panorama of his achievements makes manifest how he foresaw his work becoming history. For Soane, I feel both proximity and deep sympathy for different reasons. Like him, I had the good fortune to begin in architecture under the guidance of two architects I consider my mentors, Francisco Javier Saénz de Oíza and Jørn Utzon. Like him, I spent two years in Rome at the Academy, later a constant influence in my professional life. In fact, on three occasions – in Mérida, Tarragona and Cartagena – I have had the luck of finding myself literally in the midst of Roman architecture. And without reaching the extremes shown by Soane, I have devoted my life to architecture. In my work, Soane has figured strongly on occasions. First, for the skylights in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, then later in the museums at Stockholm and Houston, Soane’s Dulwich Picture Gallery was a clear inspiration. The vaults of Atocha station and the light wells at Don Benito library also recall motifs frequently found in Soane’s work – recognising implicitly that in architecture there is no need to fear precedents. 

With that brief tribute to Soane, I would like to move on to a question pertinent to today’s architecture. The awareness of the intimate connection between time and architecture that we find so strongly present in the figure and work of Soane shows us how knowledge in architecture has moved from the treatises of the past to the histories we now rely on. The critics and historians writing these narratives have always made use of the Modern Movement as a fundamental point of reference in their accounts. Today, this reference to the Modern Movement is no longer pertinent and I would like to take the opportunity provided by this lecture to consider a new historical paradigm that could describe the principles and criteria prevalent today.

160607 vista desde nave lateral oeste definitiva

160607 vista desde nave lateral oeste definitiva

San Francisco monastery in Santo Domingo’s Ciudad Colonial, Dominican Republic, is set to become an events centre. Image courtesy of the Office of Rafael Moneo

During Soane’s lifetime, Napoleon had shown that it was possible to inscribe oneself in the destiny of nations. His contemporary, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who witnessed his campaigns, explained history in similar terms. This sudden consciousness of history, at the beginning of the 19th century, would be present in many aspects of daily life and would soon manifest itself in architecture as well. As a result, we see history come to the fore in architecture, as architects made liberal use of historic styles. History – the knowledge of histories – provided architecture with useful ingredients, endowing it with a disciplinary status similar to that of physics, chemistry or the natural sciences that took it beyond the strictly artistic order to which it had been confined. The work of an architect such as Karl Friedrich Schinkel was founded on historic styles according to each occasion. For him, historical references provided options that permitted him to associate programme and style, with an understanding that style was simply the architectural material at his disposition. The Doric was used for the most respected institutions, the Gothic for a church, or the vernacular for a Prince’s summer palace. But perhaps in a city like London, it isn’t necessary to cite examples other than those you have here, since the city has been witness to historicist buildings such as the Houses of Parliament.

This interest in historical precedents in architecture is sustained through the 19th century. Architects are converted into historians and travel in search of documentation of obscure buildings that often reappear in contemporary works. Simply considering architects who travelled to Spain in this period, we should cite the work of George Edmund Street with the Spanish Gothic and recall Henry Hobson Richardson’s voyage to Toro in Zamora, and Salamanca, which became manifest in his Trinity Church in Boston.

This willingness to use history as a quarry of architectural material establishes an architecture capable of reflecting the spirit of the new emerging nations that arise in the 19th century. It is through history and its use that we can understand the creation of so many national styles, a phenomenon that continues well into the 20th century in buildings as important as the Stockholm City Hall, to name but one. And we shouldn’t be surprised if the engineers and architects assigned to integrate the new materials and technology in construction, adopt the Gothic forms so celebrated by Viollet-le-Duc, seen as the epitome of rational construction.

2842858053 d050bb324b o

2842858053 d050bb324b o

The Mérida Museum of Roman Art, Spain. Photograph by Guzmán Lozano

But if this recognition of the importance of history translates into the underlying theme of architecture in the 19th century, as seen in Banister Fletcher’s history, we should also recognise that the Hegelian perspective provided an interpretation of history that brought people to see the arts as subject to a process of continuous evolution from strict representation – in all its significance in terms of content, technique and process – to greater abstraction where formal interpretation prevailed. A vision of history in teleological terms that seeks to understand how forms have unfolded in time, endowing with meaning the process of continuous progress, a key concept to explain mankind’s development.

It will be Heinrich Wölfflin who defines this new way of seeing the history of art in his seminal text, Principles of Art History. Wölfflin’s ambition was to write a history of art without names, in which the Renaissance and Baroque evolved as a process of formal evolution through their immanent development, independent of specific artists or works. Wölfflin sees the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque as a progressive conquest from the linear to the Picturesque; from surface to depth; from the closed to the open form; from unity to plurality; and from the direct and explicit to the diffuse and complex. The concept of immanent formal evolution leads from the figural to the abstract in art and architecture in a way that suggests the liberation from material and constructive limitations, and suggests a new dimension to conquer, space itself.

If, to this Wölfflinian thesis, we add the idea of the zeitgeist – which affirms the intimate relation between the plastic arts and society and their capacity to express the desires of that society at a given point in time – then we will have understood the significance of a text like Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture, a canonical text that signals the end of treatises and manuals, replaced by architectural histories. Treatises and manuals were abandoned for good reason – due to the growing importance of specialised disciplines, on the one hand, and the decline of the idea of the building as a coherent whole, on the other – and histories, the narratives that explain the formal evolution of buildings, took their place. Giedion, who had studied with Wölfflin, sought to place the architecture of the Modern Movement within the current of history. For Giedion, perspectival space, determined from a single, specific point of view, was no longer a valid means of representation during those years between the wars. He recognised that it was the multiplicity of points of view that best portrayed the instability discovered by the concept of relativity introduced by new physics. Giedion describes these new circumstances well, and by doing so helps architects to understand the significance of these new forms.

Soane bank of england 05

Soane bank of england 05

Joseph Michael Gandy’s depiction of the view of the consol transfer office at Soane’s Bank of England. Image courtesy of Hugh Kelly/Sir John Soane’s Museum, London 

Although at the end of the 19th century one could detect a certain resistance to the academic tradition, present in both the Art Nouveau and in the call to abandon ornament and the appeal of elemental volumes evident in the work of an architect like Adolf Loos, it wasn’t until after the First World War that a new order was established. In the late 1920s a new architecture appeared that sought to reflect the spirit of the time so clearly present in the ocean liners, trains, automobiles and fashion. The urgency to give form to built work coherent with the zeitgeist appeared simultaneously in different countries as expressed in manifestos. Naturally, these changes did not come easily. A clear example appears in a city like Hamburg, with the reconstruction of the city centre and a building like the Chilehaus where the architect Höger celebrates its strong Expressionist character. Just a few years later, in 1927, the Weissenhof Estate of Stuttgart appeared as a tour de force of the new architecture, announcing the birth of the Modern Movement.

‘I eagerly await an explanation of today’s architectural world without a reference to the past, given that it seems so little related to our present’

History and manifestos, then, instead of treatises. Action and construction, instead of the elaborate doctrine or theory that comes from the analysis of built precedents. But it would be Giedion, associated in the CIAM with Le Corbusier – ever eager to attract followers – who would convert the narrative of the new architecture into doctrine. Giedion aspired to establish the Modern Movement as a fully consecrated style, and to link it with those that had served Wölfflin in his account of formal abstraction. The Modern Movement could become a historical category through which the new architecture could be explained.

But Giedion was not the first to make this attempt. Given its impact at the time, we should mention Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock’s The International Style, which served as a welcome to the new architecture of the Modern Movement. After citing the precursors – Behrens, Perret, Van de Velde, Wright – the catalogue defines the formal principles of the new style, which they claim as one more in the series of historic movements – the Gothic, the Renaissance, the Baroque, the Romantic – since it reflects a given moment in the course of history. In addition, WC Behrendt’s Modern Architecture, published just before the Second World War, establishes many of the same general principles and clearly defines the formal qualities of the new architecture.

9896 berreteaga(san sebastian church)

9896 berreteaga(san sebastian church)

Moneo’s Iesu Church ceiling, San Sebastian, Spain, influenced by Soane’s Dulwich Picture Gallery. Photograph by Francisco Berreteaga

But it is Space, Time and Architecture that should be considered the first of these narratives that presents itself as an alternative to the treatises, making the Modern Movement the inevitable reference in charting the evolution of architecture. And it is clear that this interest in history has become manifest in many different formats ranging from monographs on architects to critical essays relating architecture with other disciplines. 

We should speak of Bruno Zevi, as author of the first book that intentionally labels itself a ‘history’, which in 1950, still Wölfflinian, declares that the history of architecture is the history of the conquest of space, and consecrates Frank Lloyd Wright as the hero who masters this challenge. And there is also the valuable contribution of Reyner Banham, who, instead of following his teacher Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of Modern Design in emphasising the work of the artist, redirected his attention in Theory and Design in the First Machine Age to things that were secondary in other histories, like those dedicated to new construction techniques. Or a historian such as Manfredo Tafuri who writes his Modern Architecture – in collaboration with Francesco Dal Co – from a Marxist perspective, emphasising aspects such as urbanism and technology. But always, even with Tafuri, the Modern Movement appears as an obligatory reference.

The other histories, such as those of Leonardo Benevolo, Vincent Scully, Jürgen Joedicke, Charles Jencks, William Curtis or Kenneth Frampton, can also be understood as texts that situate the present using coordinates established by the Modern Movement, interpreting it as a turning point similar to the way the Renaissance architects left behind the Middle Ages. And if we admit that our initiation to the discipline of architecture, our textbooks, have been histories, we should recognise that the Modern Movement has been the basis of this established canon. 

Dulwich picture gallery tomb ceiling

Dulwich picture gallery tomb ceiling

The lantern of the mausoleum at Soane’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, London. Photograph by Fae

We can see how a critic as insightful as Alan Colquhoun describes this situation in Modern Architecture, ‘Many aspects of Modernist theory still seem valid today. But much in it belongs to the realm of myth and it is impossible to accept at face value … One of the main ideas motivating the protagonists of the Modern Movement was the Hegelian notion that the study of history made it possible to predict its future course. But it is scarcely possible any longer to believe – as the Modern architects appear to have believed – that the architect is a kind of seer uniquely gifted with the power of discerning the spirit of the age and its symbolic forms. Such a belief was predicated on the possibility of projecting the conditions of the past onto the present’.

Here we have arrived at my point. I ought to say now that in spite of having situated ourselves through histories that take the Modern Movement as their cornerstone, today’s architecture can hardly be explained with this reference. I believe we have moved so far away from the Modern Movement that we ought to establish a new paradigm, ie, we no longer need the Modern Movement to explain architecture today, because, as Colquhoun says, the Modern Movement is only a myth and ‘the myth itself has now become history and demands critical interpretation’. And while some bold architects maintain the inertia of the heroic role assumed in the past, it is hard to believe that they have the power of discerning the spirit of the age and its symbolic forms. In other words, the faith Modern architects had in a shared doctrine is no longer possible.

Should we use one of those new ‘cities’ of the Gulf or the Far East to describe what architecture is today? Or do the new neighbourhoods of the old European cities offer all these features that characterise today’s architecture? Do these cities reflect our zeitgeist? We recognise that the 21st century’s digitalisation represents a transcendental change, like mechanisation in the 19th and 20th, but it is difficult to clearly define the formal character of this new culture. Architectural expression today, despite its global presence, isn’t unified and inclusive in the way it was with the first generation of Modern architects, trying to give form to the ‘First Machine Age’. 

Murcia maquetas de estudio

Murcia maquetas de estudio

Moneo’s models for Murcia Town Hall. Photograph courtesy of Office of Rafael Moneo

It would be impossible today to list the architects who share common ground in the way those of the Weissenhof or the International Style exhibit had. Neither common formal features, nor common ethical and aesthetic criteria, allow us to imagine a collective of architects working with a shared language. It’s unnecessary to cite names because the differences among them are so salient – to speak of a common language makes no sense. In fact, I would say architects try to emphasise these differences to establish their own individual trademark. Today’s architecture reveals a diversity that eludes a common language or a single characteristic material such as the white stucco was for the Modern Movement. A not-so-distant effort to preserve this common language appeared with the New York Five architects who, as we know, failed in their experiment. Only an architect like Álvaro Siza continues to work with a well-established language that, in his case, is clearly his own personal version of Modernism. Other architects, such as Herzog & de Meuron, emphasise this diversity, making the choice of material a key issue for understanding each specific building. The variety of materials characterising their work displays their linguistic eclecticism.

That today’s architecture is far removed from the Modern Movement is also manifest when considering the actual relationship between form and function. One of the most valued principles of the Modern Movement, ‘Functionalism’, has been replaced by the generic concept of flexibility. From a strict determinism when defining the form of a building, we have moved to coin the term ‘indifference of form’. Rossi’s statement about ‘functional indifference’ reinforces such an approach. Today, it is accepted that buildings are indifferent to their uses and can accommodate diverse programmes over their lifetime, in contrast to the principles of the Modern Movement. The influence of ‘Rationalism’ on architecture is today ignored. Rational construction, in terms of ‘intrinsic economy’, is neglected. An attribute always present in vernacular and anonymous architecture is now lost. Instead, anything that can be built is deemed Rational. And excessive costs (the price for capricious forms) seem to be a trifling expense to be paid once the owner, or rather the market, justifies the interest in the built form – quite a different approach to the most radical followers of Modernism such as Hannes Meyer, Mart Stam or Hans Wittwer.

For most historians, the essence of all architectural experience is the spatial sequence. This was recognised by the second generation of Modern Movement architects, such as Paul Rudolph or Eero Saarinen – something no longer present today when architecture is seen more as the result of assembling elements. Space in architecture is today more often the accidental result of the design process. It is very often a residual, interstitial space but no longer generates the building as a whole.

Key stories at the soane museum

Key stories at the soane museum

Soane’s building designs as painted by Joseph Michael Gandy. Image courtesy of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London 

Among the established objectives of the Modern Movement, the attempt to build with the most current technology is the one which remains strongest. Following Reyner Banham’s advice, Archigram’s members were those who gave technology a primacy that threatened to reduce the Vitruvian triumvirate of firmitas, utilitas and venustas to firmitas alone. Archigram’s influence was manifest in Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’ Beaubourg and marked the arrival of a new trend. Since then many architects have followed in pursuit of a technological image that fulfils all the symbolic and iconic value of their buildings. For architects such as Foster, Piano or even Nouvel, the use of technology often serves to legitimise the architectural form. Other architects such as SANAA use technology in a different manner, giving priority to the pure form, so making the rigorous use of techniques almost invisible. But neither approach seems to follow the attempts of the orthodox masters of the Modern Movement, such as Mies, for example, who strives to give form to the most elementary steel construction processes, or when Corb or Terragni give expression to new concrete construction techniques.

And yet indeed there are new techniques which lead to today’s popular notion of ‘Bigness’. This has become a category in itself that even offers claims for its own theoretical legitimation. Rem Koolhaas has written enticing pages about the way he understands ‘Bigness’. I am captivated by them and quote some lines as proof: ‘Of all possible categories, Bigness does not seem to deserve a manifesto; discredited as an intellectual problem it is apparently on its way to extinction – like the dinosaur – through clumsiness, slowness, inflexibility, difficulty. But in fact, only Bigness instigates the regime of complexity that mobilizes the full intelligence of architecture and its related fields … Bigness no longer needs the city: it competes with the city; it represents the city; it pre-empts the city; or better still, it is the city. If urbanism generates potential and architecture exploits it, Bigness enlists the generosity of urbanism against the meanness of architecture.’ 

It is true that architectural history is filled with big buildings, but many questions spring to mind. Are big buildings mandatorily needed today? Who seeks big buildings? There are moments in which they may be necessary or even useful, but I would argue they are mostly a symptom of our late capitalism. Obviously, the economy – and the real world – have always exercised their influence over buildings and their construction, but today it seems to be driven more by management decisions than actual needs. And Bigness brings almost as a corollary the notion of icon. At the XL scale, designs manifest a clear formal strategy, establishing what sort of an icon the building will be. The phantom of arbitrariness appears once the iconic value overrides all other aspects of a building’s character.

1336554050 542965 1336554560 album normal

1336554050 542965 1336554560 album normal

Moneo’s design for Atocha station in Madrid. Photograph by Álvaro García

This large scale has also had a tremendous impact on the design of housing, something the Modern Movement always engaged as a fundamental issue. Predicated on social commitment, the exploration and design of new building types had a profound impact on housing throughout the 1950s and ’60s. Today, social housing is perhaps the most neglected architectural field, abandoned to market forces without any concern to develop new approaches. The utopian goals alive in the recent past are now definitively gone. The most thoughtful recent responses to housing can be found in Asian architecture, where towers are designed and built to address the problem of the scarcity of land. The directness, and even in some moments, the brutality with which housing is treated, forces me to insist that this issue, developed rigorously during the Modern Movement, has been all but abandoned. 

New means of representation and controlling the development of the architectural form arrived with our digital era. Computers brought a new way of anticipating what buildings can be, transforming how they are designed and represented. Digitalisation brings with it the notion that form can be established through parametric procedures, allowing us to fulfil the old fantasy that form can be determined by simply applying known parameters. Obviously, those who defend such an approach ought to admit that ‘fashion’ – or some sense of the zeitgeist pressure – is in the hands of the designer. Doubtless, the lure of novelty motivates fashion and inspires the continuous desire for change in architecture. And, indeed, it is hard to believe the seductive pleasure of invention will be entirely the domain of artificial intelligence.

Having touched on some of the issues characterising today’s architecture, and having accepted that today’s architects have been taught from histories, rather than manuals and treatises, I ought to insist that our architectural world cannot be understood as the coherent evolution of the Modern Movement – and furthermore, that we cannot rely any more on the principles that inspired it. It is a situation not very different to that of Sir John Soane when, at the end of his life, from his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, he could see that the architectural canon and language of classicism were no longer valid and that the new world of architecture was something he wouldn’t recognise.

D836e93e69dd2e1f0fd3cc2bc1f33b82

D836e93e69dd2e1f0fd3cc2bc1f33b82

The Breakfast Room of Soane’s own home, now Sir John Soane’s Museum

If we no longer have a clear idea of the attributes that ought to belong to a building – something the architects possessed from the Renaissance to the Beaux Arts, and even in the Modern Movement – and instead only understand buildings in a temporal sequence, we should ask critics to decipher the significance of architecture today – an interpretation that establishes goals pursued in contemporary architecture. 

I wonder whether art critics and historians are best suited to describe this paradigm or whether it is sociologists who will offer a more accurate diagnosis. It is essential to know more about our mercurial society to understand its needs. One of the greatest contrasts between our times and the interwar period is that they had a sense that progress could be anticipated, and the zeitgeist could be made manifest. Architects in the ’20s and ’30s were able to think in utopian terms about the city because they felt capable of giving shape to the spirit of the times. That’s something we don’t dare to do today, when only the most radical pragmatism seems to prevail. I don’t believe we can foresee how things will develop. We accept, as Spanish philosopher José Luis Pardo says, that ‘… the unknown future is more real than the present and the past. It is the future which decides the sense and the durability of both, past and present, but it is also a fiction that didn’t happen yet and that may never happen at all’. 

I would like to know a bit more about this ineluctable, immediate future that seems destined to appear without our intervention, without room to believe – as the architects of the Modern Movement thought – that we are contributing to the development of the ‘idea’ Hegel thought sustained history. I eagerly await an explanation of today’s architectural world without a reference to the past, given that it seems so little related to our present. I think this presents a great challenge to those who seek to account for today’s architecture. I wonder whether we should still consider architecture only as the work of individuals, and cities as the outcome of the almost uncontrollable process, or if there is still a possibility of saving the legacy of our cities. And if taking cities as frames of reference, we are able to keep their integrity when they allow our eagerness for novelty to develop, which is implicit in human life and highly stimulated by the advance of science. I would like it to be possible and I would like to see architecture, the discipline to which Sir John Soane dedicated himself in body and soul, serving as the instrument to make this much-needed mediation between future and past. Surely architects will welcome critics willing to become historians to explain how the formal world has come to be what it is. This is a formidable but necessary challenge for those who would interpret it. And with this thought I conclude on this celebration of the great architect Sir John Soane. 

Lecture given by Rafael Moneo at London’s Royal Institution on 1 November upon receiving the 2017 Soane Medal, conceived by David Chipperfield, trustee of Sir John Soane’s Museum