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Rafael Moneo: a serious search for expressive architecture

cathedral of our lady of the angels rafael moneo

A new book explores the bold and beautiful work of the Pritzker Prize-winning Spanish architect

Rafael Moneo is a great architect, recipient of the Pritzker Prize and the RIBA Gold Medal, yet he is hardly recognized as such within Britain; so Rafael Moneo: Building Teaching Writing by Francisco Gonzalez de Canales and Nicholas Ray (Yale, 2015) is timely, in bringing him squarely before the British public.

I have studied his work for some time, at least since the Spanish magazine El Croquis did a special issue on him in 1994. More recently, Laura Martinez de Guereñu edited a comprehensive compendium of his work in English (Rafael Moneo: Remarks on 21 Works, Monacelli Press, 2010), which is especially useful in that it gives us his thoughts about his own designs – which is itself pretty unusual. So we have no excuse now for not taking him seriously.

As a British critic, I’ve had my own priorities; and my own thoughts over the last twenty years; I’ve been preoccupied by James Stirling, whom I consider the greatest British architect of the second half of the twentieth century. Moneo is surely the greatest Spanish architect of this period, but where Stirling is dead, he is still with us, and steaming ahead. Is he as great as Le Corbusier? Perhaps not; Corb virtually invented modern architecture, and he has been a pervasive influence. I was entirely under his spell when I graduated in 1950; I designed my own Unité d’Habitation in 1957 at Royal Street, Lambeth, while working for Holford & Creed. But my design took a turn towards Aalto (flats at Highgate 1968) and the qualities I sought for in architecture were related to what I came to call “expressive blankness”: areas of wall without windows. I was timid about that, but Moneo is bold: it’s one of the principal characteristics of his design; it virtually constitutes the Moneo “look”.

‘Unlike James Stirling, he doesn’t make jokes, but at all points believes in the importance of what he is doing’

Moneo was born in a Catholic country, and was educated at the Jesuit School in Tudela, Navarra, at that time sufficiently small to allow him to become aware of the importance of the social community. A Jesuit education confirmed his intellectual predispositions, encouraged him to read philosophy and to think deeply about first and last things: this serious approach has become second nature to him, and has given him a deep sense of responsibility; I think this is why, unlike James Stirling, he doesn’t make jokes, but at all points believes in the importance of what he is doing. So he is free from Mannerist ambiguity, although he has some doubts. Unquestionably, in functional terms, all his buildings “work”. After all, his father was an engineer.

His seriousness allows him to concentrate on something we rarely hear talked about nowadays: beauty. Not only in the play of good proportions, but in the effect of character. Although all his buildings are beautiful, they have a great variety of character; they are all, in different ways interesting. The authors have selected seven of them to illustrate his work, and they have made good choices. The town hall extension at Murcia. a complete building in itself, is particularly beautiful, and they have chosen it to grace the cover. It illustrates well Moneo’s chief qualities: the expressive blankness, so important in all his designs, here allows the ground floor to be devoid of shops and gives it the withdrawn character of a civic building. With the arrangement of the large window and the two small ones, it also forms an interesting composition

The building I feel most critical of is the one Moneo designed in collaboration with Manuel de Solà-Morales (1987-1993). Why? It brings us to the general problem of bigness; in my view, it is too big. Moneo himself is very aware of the problems of bigness. Kenneth Frampton has chosen it as his first example of what he calls a megaform (in Megaform as Urban Landscape, University of Illinous Press, 2010). Perhaps Frampton does not intend to be critical of the building, but rather has doubts about the growth of venture capitalism, with its constant need for bigger returns. Where cities used to be agglomerations of quite small buildings, which generally melded into a (fairly) harmonious whole, now they tend to be financed by large organizations, and each addition is too big, and too individual, to do any melding. However, looked at in detail, this design is sensitive to its context, reinforcing the existing pattern of shopping along the Diagonal. It shows complete awareness of its social responsibility and has all the usual Moneo virtues, even to the point where the relatively small repeating windows used could allow a change of use from offices to flats, if required. The form, while unified, is broken up and doesn’t dominate the city. And it is, also, beautiful.

‘It brings us to the problem that Le Corbusier felt when he refused (at first) to design a church: how can the rational tabula rasa approach lead to support for superstition?’

Moneo has built in Spain, but also in the United States. There, he has adapted skillfully to local conditions, while continuing his own search for an expressive architecture. His Cathedral Our Lady of the Angels, in Los Angeles, is as bold as it is beautiful. It brings us to the problem that Le Corbusier felt when he refused (at first) to design a church: how can the rational tabula rasa approach lead to support for superstition?. He went on to design the chapel at Ronchamp, which probably became the best loved of all his buildings. Moneo, brought up by Jesuits, must have faced the same problem. But what comes to his aid at this point is his sense of tradition, and his innate regard for it. Although his architecture is clearly modern and of our age, it shows not merely an awareness, but a respect, for tradition. The circular hall at Atocha Railway station in Madrid is entirely modern in conception, but fulfills our longing for continuity: indeed, his caption in Remarks on 21 Buildings is: “Continuity [is] the key to understanding how cities and buildings grow”. So, Moneo gives us in practice a combination of Ancient Wisdom and Modern Knowhow (The title of my latest book). Continuity is a strength of our civilization. It allows us to still enjoy Bach along with Stravinsky. Igor Stravinsky himself wrote (Poetics of Music, Harvard, 1942):

A renewal is fruitful only when it goes hand in hand with tradition. Living dialectic wills that renewal and tradition shall develop and abet each other in a simultaneous process.

In that spirit, Rafael Moneo with his determination to discover new truths and to lead the way into the future, shows himself to be above fashion. He comes to a new site, replete with information, and full too with his own desires, his hunger for new forms. But first, he listens to what he calls “the murmur of the site”. He has depth.

And this modest but interesting book is also on the side of the angels. Like Moneo, it is serious. Its choice of examples is good, but above all the respect it shows for Monxsdeo’s thinking allows us to take it seriously, and gives it a place in our libraries. Although it discusses his teaching, it provides actual examples of his writing as well as showing his buildings: I particularly enjoyed The Life of Buildings, even if it appears here only as an appendix. And, if you can slow down just a little to bring yourself back to the role of a student, it’s a good read.

Robert Maxwell is Emeritus Professor of Architecture, Princeton University

Rafael Moneo: Building Teaching Writing, by Francisco Gonzalez de Canales and Nicholas Ray, Yale University Press, 2015

Lead Image: Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles by Rafael Moneo. Source: wikimedia commons