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Your views: William JR Curtis on Moneo


The idea of a unified ‘Modernism’ is indeed a myth: William JR Curtis responds to Rafael Moneo’s Soane Lecture

Rafael Moneo is among the more learned of architects, but his texts don’t always clarify their subjects. In his First Annual Soane Lecture, delivered last November on his acceptance of the first Sir John Soane Medal (AR December/January 2017), he risked straying into territories where he is not really at ease, such as the historiography of modern architecture. 

He rightly pointed out that early chroniclers such as Sigfried Giedion relied on a determinist idea of history and a simplistic notion of zeitgeist, expressing itself directly in a limited selection of modern buildings and spatial concepts from the heroic years of the 1920s. But he then lumped together a range of later histories including my own Modern Architecture since 1900 (Phaidon, first edition 1982; fully revised third edition, 1996), accusing them of propounding a unitary myth of ‘Modernism’.

Nothing could be further from the truth in my case. Moneo’s ‘critique’ of the myth of a monolithic ‘Modern Movement’ could have come straight from the Preface and Introduction of my book written nearly 40 years ago. Already in the first edition I rejected the idea of a unified ‘Modernism’ and a so-called ‘International Style’, in favour of the idea of an unfolding modern tradition with diverse strands and positions: from the ‘idealism’ of Corb and Mies van der Rohe to the ‘Functionalism’ of Hannes Meyer to the obsession with ‘nature’ in the work of Lloyd Wright, Aalto and Utzon. Above all, I avoided ‘movements’ by concentrating on architecture of high intensity and long-term quality, using lenses of several focal lengths to reveal underlying meanings and thought processes, as well as lines of ensuing influence. The approach deliberately balanced the formal, the functional, the ideological and the symbolic. Moreover, the book avoided the lie of a rootless Modernism by exploring the ways in which key architects transformed lessons from the past. 



Moneo’s adobe-coloured concrete Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, California (2002), the third largest cathedral in the world

All this constituted a major departure from texts by the early mythographers of the modern such as Hitchcock & Johnson (1932), Pevsner (1936) or Giedion (1941). My approach also differed from those of Tafuri & Dal Co (1979), and Frampton (1980), that explored ideological issues at the expense of individual works of architecture and questions of form and meaning; they also suffered from a ‘Western’ bias. My first edition charted worldwide transformations of seminal concepts in cultures including Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, Australia and Japan; it also explored developments in India, Egypt and the Middle East). My aim was to produce a coherent narrative while examining social, territorial and political themes, always bringing the discussion back to buildings and specifically architectural ideas. 

The third edition of Modern Architecture Since 1900 broke new ground by exploring interactions of national, regional and international strands in the ’30s in places as diverse as Scandinavia, Mexico, Turkey, Greece and British Mandate Palestine. As for the postwar years, I included more on modern architecture in Spain, Portugal and Finland, and pursued ideas of post-colonial identity in the ‘developing world’. The third edition included paradigmatic buildings by architects as diverse as Piano, Foster, Ando, Maki, Doshi, Rewal, Siza, Navarro and Moneo. This approach avoided ‘isms’, instead showing how various solutions were proposed to shared problems ‘in the air’ at the time such as the presence of the past or the relationship between technology and nature.

The thinking and writing of history reflect philosophical positions. Moneo was right to mention Hegel and Wölfflin in relation to the evolutionary fictions of Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture (1941). My concept of a dynamic modern tradition avoided this teleology by showing how key works functioned as paradigms paving the way to later transformations and re-readings. I was influenced by Karl Popper’s notion of scientific discoveries in ‘structured areas of problems’, by Ernst Gombrich’s concept of ‘schemata’, by George Kubler’s Shape of Time (1962) and by Henri Focillon’s Vie des formes (1932) – not to forget TS Eliot’s ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1921). I was also intrigued by Vasari’s Lives (1550-68) which broke down the Renaissance into three ‘ages’, each initiated by masterpieces crystallising solutions to specific artistic problems (eg, representation with Giotto; perspective with Masaccio; ideal perfection with Leonardo and Raphael).

‘The present is heir to a diverse and dynamic modern tradition which is far from exhausted’

Whatever one’s theories, the writing of history is its own art. There is also an art to reading buildings for their underlying ideas. I have studied Moneo’s work and published texts on it in El Croquis (1994, 2000). The Museum of Roman Art in Mérida (1980-86) is surely his outstanding achievement in an uneven overall development. It is emblematic and I included it in the third edition of Modern Architecture since 1900. When Moneo received the RIBA Gold Medal in 2003, an excerpt of an interview between us was published in the celebration booklet. At a reception for Moneo in the Soane Museum I gave him the offprint of my own Soane Lecture of 1997 on ‘Modern Architecture, Mythical Landscapes and Ancient Ruins’. Soane sought fundamentals in the ruins of antiquity, but so did the ‘modern masters’: Corb in the Parthenon, Kahn in Roman baths, Aalto in Greek theatres, Wright in Mayan temples, Utzon in the platforms of Monte Albán. They were radical in the true sense: revolutionary while returning to roots. 

In his lecture, Moneo claims that the Modern Movement is no longer pertinent, resorting to worn-out caricatures such as ‘the established canon’ or the ‘orthodox masters’ to make his case. In effect he attacks the myth of a unified Modernism rather than the complex historical reality, past and present. Worldwide, architects extend the lessons of seminal modern buildings in ways that are anything but ‘orthodox’. David Chipperfield, who presided at the Soane event, has drawn on inspiration from Mies to Kahn to the Chicago frame; SANAA continue to explore potentials of the Corbusian free plan; RCR Arquitectes interpret Mies for his metaphysical space and framing of nature while drawing on Ando and ancient Japan; Siza, with his vast knowledge of Latin American  architecture, has reinvented the spatial dynamism of Niemeyer, Bo Bardi and Villanueva: a generation of Irish architects have worked out of the brick language of Kahn; Maki has transformed principles of the Ville Radieuse in an urban plan for India; and so on. 

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The National Museum of Roman Art in Mérida by Moneo channels Rossi, Roman ruins and the Mezquita in Córdoba

Sometimes there are contrasting readings of the same example: Gehry drew on Ronchamp for its complex curves, Ando for its meditative space and light. The diverse modern tradition supplies a vast stock of knowledge and inspiration embracing individual works, types and principles. These are constantly reread in fresh ways.

Moneo says one thing but does another. In fact he is one of the most eclectic of modern revivalists, raiding 20th-century and earlier architectures like a magpie. With Bankinter he bounced off Sullivan; with Logroño, Grassi; with Mérida, Rossi, Roman ruins, the Mezquita in Córdoba and the lighting of the nave of Blomstedt’s Turku Funerary Chapel; with Atocha station in Madrid, Asplund and Soane; with the Auditorio in Barcelona, Kahn’s Yale Mellon Center; with the Kursaal in San Sebastian, the splayed auditoria of Sydney Opera House and the sculptures of Chillida and Oteiza; with the Miro Foundation in Majorca, it was a fusion of two modern ‘tropes’ combining an oblong volume with curved or angular extrusions – Corb’s La Tourette and Aalto’s libraries; with the Stockholm museum, Kahn’s Trenton Bath House pavilions; with Murcia town hall, De la Sota’s Gobierno Civil, Saenz Oiza’s staccato piers and Jacobsen’s Søllerod City Hall. A student suggested to me that Moneo does not know how to forget. Of course it is not the sources that count so much as the ability to synthesise them. But if the borrowings are too self-conscious the results may be wooden, even academic.

‘Whatever one’s theories, the writing of history is its own art’

The present is heir to a diverse and dynamic modern tradition which is far from exhausted. The situation may be compared to a river system with several channels: some have dried up, others have found new outlets, others flow with renewed force. Meanwhile it is nourished by deep springs from the past. The invention of modern architecture a century or so ago was a major ‘revolution’ on a historical scale. So far there has not been another to replace it. The ground rules of architecture were fundamentally redefined. Radical inventions announce a new faith, but as time moves on they become foundation stones of a new tradition. Their ‘modernity’ matters less and they become relatives of classic works of the past. Writing about the beginnings of modern art, André Salmon suggested that ‘the founders of schools, if they really are masters, surpass the framework of the school itself. Picasso had already, in 1908, a right to say that he knew nothing and wanted to know nothing of Cubism’. Maybe the same could be said of Lloyd Wright, or Corb, Mies, Aalto, Kahn or Utzon, that they were masters surpassing the framework of the school itself, knowing nothing of, and wanting to know nothing of, ‘Modernism’?  

Buildings speak louder than words and it is surprising that Moneo places so much emphasis on texts and so little on works of architecture when it comes to transmitting principles and defining new directions. He seems to imagine that critics can point the way, when it is major works of architecture that define new paradigms by crystallising the often contradictory realities and myths of the present in resonant forms. But to do this they need a language and that is where they may draw on earlier seminal buildings. These multiple readings of powerful modern prototypes are liable to continue, for such works transcend time and are still pregnant with possibilities. In AR March 2007, I concluded: ‘The primary works of modern architecture are still very present even if we see the world which created them with a certain distance. They are not there to be mimicked, but to be submitted to a critical analysis and to creative transformation. They still communicate on many levels and we still have much to learn from them. This is not an academic matter but something which underlines the power of art to hold the imagination and to open up unexpected worlds. When this transmission across time ceases to occur, we can claim that modern architecture is dead.’ 

This piece is featured in the AR’s May 2018 issue on Intensity – click here to purchase a copy.