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A Moneo monograph

Remarks on 21 works, Rafael Moneo

Rafael Moneo’s architecture is very variable in quality - and that quality is unusually difficult to assess from publication. Works you expect to admire can disappoint when visited, and vice versa. Yet he is a very significant architect, his work shaped by theoretical concerns, the complexities of context (beyond blending with neighbouring buildings) and a strong sense of propriety. His best works are civic buildings (even if for a private client) of gravitas with a character apt to place and programme. His oeuvre is thus heterogeneous despite the readily recognisable authorship and such commonalities as emphatic physical presence and a retro aesthetic, with affinities to Art Deco - although I’m told it is the 1940s he admires.

Unlike so much contemporary work that is conceived for the moment, Moneo’s tends to seem somewhat outside of time, or at least of today. He refers to himself in this book as a Modern architect; however his heavy, contextually-rooted buildings with explicitly ‘referential’ elements such as fluted columns and pilasters and domes make such an assertion debatable. Could the Seville airport (AR May 1992), or even Prevision Espanola (AR January 1990) in the same city, really be considered Modern? If Charles Jencks had not restricted Postmodernism to scenographic kitsch, might not Moneo be better considered Postmodern?

Moneo’s importance is as architect, academic and mentor. Several of the architects who, along with him, brought Spain to architectural prominence in the two decades after the advent of democracy in 1975 credit Moneo with helping them find their own distinctive voices. But those who followed have not sustained the same standard: their work is stylish but facile and lacking in depth. The best work by Moneo and those only somewhat younger had taken on board the various strains of Postmodern critique to transcend a simplistic modernity by drawing on other historic periods too. The younger generation have returned to a slick and empty, minimalist Modernism.

Because I once wrote copiously about Spain and maintain links there I am often asked: why this slump in quality? One tentatively speculative response I offer is that younger architects missed something the best of their elders enjoyed. These typically had had a close relationship with an architect-professor who remained a mentor - Moneo’s was J F Sáenz de Oiza (whose oeuvre was similarly varied and variable). Now classes are too big and professors too busy in practice for younger architects to engage in the ongoing conversations that hone judgement and deepen understanding.

My unrealistic hope was that this book, which presents Moneo’s major works with essays by him explaining the key design concerns behind each, might be a slight substitute for these missing conversations.

The book’s concept is a good one. Although each essay focuses on only the dominant issue shaping a building, many issues obviously apply to other buildings too and together they give insight into the range of Moneo’s concerns and his approach to them. But this focus on the distinctive concerns of each work means that those shaping all of them - such as the preference for heavy masonry construction and for fenestration and panels with a horizontal emphasis, the retro aesthetic and the recurrent use of the same detail (such as balustrades), or even features found in only a few of them (such as the remarkably deep entrance halls of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and that in Houston) - are not discussed. Yet these would have been at least equally revealing as a topic and such an essay (a serious omission) would have provided vital further insight.

Moreover, many details crucial to the visual success of the buildings are unmentioned, such as the horizontal brass strips and aluminium external reveals to the windows of Barcelona’s L’Illa block whose glistening presence lifts a building that might seem dull on the page. In general, Moneo’s concerns here are with the buildings as objects and he says little about the subjective experience of them, which tends to make the essays informative rather than inspiring.

Probably the biggest disappointment is the treatment of Moneo’s beautiful drawings that are mostly reproduced much too small, some inscrutably so. Also, the lack of annotation of major uses on them sometimes makes it difficult to understand properly the buildings, or even to follow the texts. And the small black and white photographs are poorly printed. Yet the specially-commissioned colour photographs by Michael Moran are good and crucially include views setting the buildings in context, although with some buildings you wish more photographs were included.

So for all its virtues, this is not the stand-alone monograph that is long overdue for Moneo. For fuller presentation and appreciation of the buildings it needs to be supplemented by the monographic issues of El Croquis. But some essays, particularly those discussing Moneo’s various strategies for dealing with context and his comments on the character sought for a building, should prove useful in architectural schools. Peter Buchanan

+ Offers insight into the range of Moneo’s approach
- Drawings are reproduced inscrutably small

Remarks on 21 Works

Author: Rafael Moneo

Publisher: The Monacelli Press, 2010

Price: $75

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