Rafael Moneo believes good architecture must be innovative but rooted in its place

Moneo, the first Spanish architect to win a Pritzker Prize, says buildings must contribute to the fabric of the city and explains why his architecture does not have a common language.

by Vladimir Belogolovsky Published on : Mar 04, 2020

Rafael Moneo was born in Tudela in northern Spain in 1937. He graduated from the Higher Technical School of Architecture of Madrid, ETSAM, in 1961. In 1963, Moneo won the Rome Prize and spent two years at the Spanish Academy in Rome where his meetings with leading historians and theoreticians such as Bruno Zevi, Manfredo Tafuri, and Paolo Portoghesi had a strong and lasting influence on his understanding of architecture as a historical continuity and aspiration to rely on history as inexhaustible inspiration in his abstracted, yet, nuancedly layered and intricately coded buildings. The architect opened his studio in Madrid in 1965. Among his most recognised built works are Laboratories Building for Columbia University in New York (2005-10), for which he collaborated with Moneo Brock Studio; Prado Museum Expansion in Madrid (1998-2007); Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles (1996-2002); Murcia City Hall in Murcia, Spain (1991-98); National Museum of Roman Art in Merida, Spain (1980-86); and Pilar and Joan Mirò Foundation in Palma de Mallorca, Spain (1987-92).

Rafael Moneo | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
Rafael Moneo Image Credit: Courtesy of Massimiliano Polles

The architect’s practicing career always went hand in hand with being a devoted educator and writer. After years of teaching at his alma mater and the Higher Technical School of Architecture of Barcelona, Moneo was appointed Chairman of the Architecture Department of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (1985-90) where he continues to teach to this day as the Josep Lluís Sert professor. His books include Theoretical Anxiety and Design Strategies in the Work of Eight Contemporary Architects (MIT Press, 2004) and Rafael Moneo: Remarks on 21 Works (Monacelli Press, 2010). In 1996, Moneo became the first Spanish architect to win the Pritzker Prize. He is also the recipient of the 2003 Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects and the 2017 Praemium Imperiale.

The following interview was conducted during my recent visit to Moneo’s studio in Madrid where he is currently working with a handful of collaborators on hotels in Malaga and Havana, residential towers in Korea and Miami, and two urban design interventions. One is the underground expansion of the Atocha Station in Madrid, following his own 1984-92 and 2007-12 expansions. And the other – in Berlin at Schinkelplatz next to the Museum Island where his 2013 competition-winning proposal is being built across the street from the Neo Gothic Friedrichswerder Church by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Moneo’s compact five-story structure, like a keystone, is going to connect and complete three buildings into a single U-shaped residential complex. The other two now under-construction buildings are designed by Axel Schultes of Schultes Frank Architekten and Hemprich Tophof Architekten.

Atocha Station Expansion, Madrid, 1984-92, by Rafael Moneo | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
Atocha Station Expansion, Madrid, 1984-92 Image Credit: Courtesy of Michael Moran for Rafael Moneo

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Right after graduation you worked for Jørn Utzon in Denmark who you saw, ‘as the legitimate heir of the masters of the heroic period’. What was his influence on you and what was it that you learned from him?

Rafael Moneo (RM): I graduated from ETSAM in 1961 and while still at school, I was working for Francisco Sáenz de Oiza for three years. His residential tower, Torres Blancas, here in Madrid, was one of the last projects I worked on there. It was a fantastic experience, but in those days, Spain was still suffering many hardships. Economically, it was behind other European countries. I followed many publications at that time and was familiar with Utzon’s work. I thought it was the most promising and optimistic architecture at that time. He seemed to be a figure on the same level as Le Corbusier or Mies. He was also tall, handsome, like a movie star, and very confident. Most importantly, his work was great. I wrote a letter to him and he invited me to come. He worked at a small house in Hellebæk, a tiny town north of Copenhagen with just six or seven people. I stayed working for him from 1961 to 1962.

At that time, he was working on the Opera House roof shells that could not be built. The problem with the design was that it was a hybrid and very complex roof, but in order to be built it had to be systemised out of prefabricated units running along a spherical curve. I was very much involved in that project and I was even sent to meet Ove Arup in London. What I learned from Utzon was mainly his attitude. He was such a heroic figure. He had no fear. He knew he was talented, and he went toward his goal without compromise. As a young architect, I really admired that courage. 

Laboratories Building for Columbia University in collaboration with Moneo Brock Studio, New York, 2005-10 by Rafael Moneo | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
Laboratories Building for Columbia University in collaboration with Moneo Brock Studio, New York, 2005-10 Image Credit: Courtesy of Michael Moran for Rafael Moneo

VB: From early on, parallel to practicing, you were very active in writing about architecture. You even founded a magazine Arquitectura Bis. What was it that you wanted to address in your writings?

RM: For me to be critical helps to find the way to explain what you do as an architect. And extending this approach, I like to establish a dialogue with my colleagues' work. I always wrote essays on buildings by many architects. This is the way for me to understand architects’ works and intentions. I like to explain projects by discovering ideas and identifying problems. Architecture is important as a part of history, but also as a critical discipline. I wrote a book Theoretical Anxiety and Design Strategies where I discussed theoretical positions, technical innovations and design contributions of eight leading contemporary architects.

I believe architecture schools must pay close attention to the contemporary scene. This helps to establish a productive dialogue within the profession. - Rafael Moneo
Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, 1996-2002, by Rafael Moneo | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, 1996-2002 Image Credit: Courtesy of Michael Moran for Rafael Moneo

VB: Could you talk about your design process and what particular issues you try to address in your work?

RM: I would like to keep a critical and reflective mind. It is about adjusting a particular building type to the site. The context is important, and I never dismiss context, but I would argue that my work is not simply contextual. I am always looking beyond context. I am curious. I am working against and with context. That’s what I mean by adjusting to the site – adjusting the building’s volume to specific site particularities. Looking for what the site needs and what the building wants to become – playing with rhythms, proportions, spacing between various elements, emphasising clarity of construction means. It is important to tie the new building with the street, to connect it to the city around it. Good architecture is able to absorb the context and become something else – innovative but rooted in its place. Every new building should contribute to the existing fabric of the city, to become an integral part of it.

Pilar and Joan Mirò Foundation, Palma de Mallorca, Spain, 1987-92, by Rafael Moneo | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
Pilar and Joan Mirò Foundation, Palma de Mallorca, Spain, 1987-92 Image Credit: Courtesy of Michael Moran for Rafael Moneo

To me constructability and materiality, and how they meet is very important. In other words, forms must be expressed through materiality and means of construction. This is what constitutes architecture for me, not simply drawing an outline of something but to be able to construct it out of real materials. Also, you can never simply rely on your knowledge. That’s not enough. You have to keep learning all the time, you have to keep accumulating knowledge by travelling, visiting projects, reading history and criticism, exchanging ideas with colleagues and students. You have to be intuitive, creative, and you must question what you already know all the time. And, the most important thing – I never tried to develop a singular mode or a style, so to speak. I always expanded and used a mixture of strategies.

I never wanted to develop a language that you may use again and again from project to project. Every project is different. I don’t have a fear of not having a common language. – Rafael Moneo
Prado Museum Expansion, Madrid, 1998-2007, by Rafael Moneo | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
Prado Museum Expansion, Madrid, 1998-2007 Image Credit: Courtesy of Michael Moran for Rafael Moneo

VB: What would you say your architecture is about?

RM: It is hard for me to examine my own work, but what I want it to be the most is to be an absolutely integral part of cities where I have opportunities to build. Buildings must grow with the cities where they are built. Buildings live in cities; they don’t live alone. They must be a part of culture and larger life of cities. That’s why I never try to insist on a particular form. I adjust, I look for something appropriate every time. Architecture should pay deep respect to what surrounds it. Architects should think about not only the current moment but also about both past and future. I see cities as layers of materiality.

National Museum of Roman Art in Merida, Spain, 1980-86 by Rafael Moneo | Vladimir Belogolovsky | STIRworld
National Museum of Roman Art in Merida, Spain, 1980-86 Image Credit: Courtesy of Michael Moran for Rafael Moneo

Buildings should not be reduced to mere autonomous objects. They only become significant when they are fully integrated into their cities. Personally, I feel very fortunate to be able to work on meaningful public projects. I participated in developing major urban projects in Madrid such as the Atocha Station and Prado Museum, both were additions, not new ground up visions. I find it very satisfying in taking part in major projects that work in favour of the city – growing, adapting and making it healthier for people to live and enjoy. This is what I mean when I say that I would like history to be alive. The only way to do something new is to think historically.

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About Author

Vladimir Belogolovsky

Vladimir Belogolovsky

Belogolovsky is an American curator, critic, and a columnist with STIR. He graduated from the Cooper Union School of Architecture (1996) and after practicing architecture for 12 years, founded New York-based Curatorial Project for curating architectural exhibitions. He has written nine books, including Conversations with Architects, curated over 50 international exhibitions and has lectured in more than 30 countries.

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