Rafael Moneo - interview

Rafael Moneo will deliver the annual architectural lecture at the Royal Academy in London in association with Blueprint this year. Shumi Bose sat down with him in his Madrid office to discuss his illustrious sixty-year career in that city. Despite winning the Pritzker Prize in 1996 and the RIBA Gold Medal in 2003, Moneo maintains an affable modesty and a deep sense of consideration — as do his architectural interventions

Interview by Shumi Bose

I thought we might start with Madrid, where you have been practicing now for several decades.

I have been in Madrid since 1954 -- 60 years now. As such, Madrid is like my hometown, even though I remain quite attached to my birthplace, Navarra. But my professional life is deeply attached to Madrid.

Photo: Michael Moran

The Kursaal Congress Centre, an 1800-seater auditorium in on the picturesque Basque seafront, is modelled after 'two beached rocks'

For the Venice Architecture Biennale of 2012, you wrote an elegiac text on the legacy of architects' relationships with single cities, to go along with drawings of your many projects in Madrid.

I am quite aware that urban conditions are changing radically. Globalisation is no longer something waiting to happen but something that has already happened, but I still think cities are able to retain or to keep the imprint of some architects for specific periods of time. For example, if you take the city of Madrid, it has a really large debt to architects such as Villanueva, an architect from the late 18th century. Not because he was responsible for beautiful buildings -- although I do consider his original Prado Museum to be one of the nicest 19th century buildings in Europe -- but rather a certain feeling in the models he established, in proportional elements, the manner of putting brick and stone together. There's a certain manner that his colleagues learned from him; a sense of dignity and contention, which is very much down to Villanueva.


The BankInter building in Madrid: Moneo's hand drawings place his buildings in dialogue with existing structures

This is something I have noticed in particular cities around the world, where you can still feel the presence of certain architects. And that is probably not going to happen anymore; in the end, architects now need to broaden their field of operations to consider the whole world. You might call this nostalgia, but it was wonderful in the days when architects felt able to leave a real trace of themselves in their particular cities -- not just to satisfy the architect's ego, but more because I consider the work of architects to be so related to cities. To coexist with the city, to live with and see how your work is able to permeate the city; this has been very satisfying for architects.

And for yourself, working in one city for six decades, have you been able to enjoy some of that?

I have been quite fortunate, yes, even though my work has been limited in some cases, much of this work involved extensions to existing buildings. Overall as an architect I consider it my good fortune to be able to work and interact with this city. I have been lucky to have seen my work on one of the most iconic streets in Madrid, Paseo de La Castellana -- from BankInter (1976) to Puerta de Atocha (rail station extension, 1985) to the Prado Museum extension (2007) and the Bank of Spain (2006).

Sebastian Church

The Iesu Church in San Sebastian hosts a number of facilities -- including a supermarket at basement level -- that ensure its centrality in the community

Speaking of broadening the field of operations, in the UK there is much discussion of architecture, and possibly more involvement for architects too, within the political sphere. How do you feel about this?

We are probably less confident than we were about using physical planning in truly giving form to cities. Nowadays, cities cannot be contained -- you need to follow how the city, in idealistic terms, is somehow developing in its own imminence.

Sebastian Church

The Iesu Church in San Sebastian hosts a number of facilities -- including a supermarket at basement level -- that ensure itscentrality in the community

That changes the role of urbanists or planners -- to be more flexible, to change the city without losing an overall view, knowing the limits of development. But ultimately, urban planning is a kind of frustration. It's a fact that most masterplans haven't lasted through the life of a planner, so you see the city grow episode after episode. So you are trying to grow this concatenation. Yet, each generation tries to believe that they are able to dictate or have the last word. To lose this, and instead recognise that you have only a limited view -- and yet, to keep a sense of the hierarchy of the whole city, to do what you should... it seems to me a different view that probably needs to take in those values that you talk about; the presence of politicians, of money.

Sebastian Church

The Iesu Church in San Sebastian hosts a number of facilities -- including a supermarket at basement level -- that ensure itscentrality in the community

At this point, I should say that even though I mention this episodic idea of development, architects do need to consider that what we do will last even longer than we actually might want. In architecture, so much is dictated by novelty, done and made in an instant. Architecture becomes old the day after it is inaugurated, the day after it has been distributed via various media. But one needs to consider an architecture that resists that value, an architecture that continues beyond the instant. This is today's contradiction, when architecture would like to enjoy the same ephemerality as artists installations. But art installations disappear, recorded only in photographs or some collection. Architecture, because of the economic structure it has, doesn't allow you to think about it in the same terms.

Your work would resist this instantaneous consumption, perhaps because much of it has had to acknowledge and embed itself in past works.

The architect is more involved now in the building industry and prone to pressures from economic forces, rather than the rationality of public administrations. Constraints for buildings are in a way more loose; it is in fact easier to build now. If that is the case, you have left only this instantaneous image of power; you find yourself trying to exploit an iconographic value. But not every construction can be expected to play this iconographic role. Therefore I prefer to think of buildings embeddedness in the city. And so I would return to this issue of contextualisation.

Michael Moran

The National Museum of Roman Art is an homage to Roman construction technology, with its towering arches of brick

When you embed your buildings in the city, you are somehow modifying the entire condition of the city itself. Therefore you are creating a new context or condition, rather than being forced to maintain something. And that lifts the gloom perhaps; it leaves room for those often extremely distinguished operations that we call iconographic, but in the meantime there are many times when architects can be asked to do something else.

Who were the main influences on you as a young architect?

These days it seems that we're able to know people without being in direct contact. As a student I had the good fortune to work with the Spanish architect Sáenz de Oiza. I was also very taken by my history teacher Leopoldo Torres Balbás. After I had spent some time with Oiza, I went to work with Jørn Utzon. Being able to feel the difference -- Oiza being tormented, trying to squeeze something out of himself right until the end, to do something valuable. In contrast with this, the calm with which Utzon accepted both recognition and the very difficult working conditions we had -- we were working at the time on the controversial Sydney Opera House -- this was quite the lesson. Later on, returning to cities, I learned a lot from Rome; the traveller's condition helps any person who wants to become an architect. Spending, for example, some time in New York, was another influence.

Recently I heard Rogers and Foster discussing their trip in the mid-seventies to New York. You reached there around the same time in 1975; how did it strike you?

America is good and hard at the same time. Europe gives you a much more protected condition. In Spain, you're surrounded by your family, your birthplace, your culture, the people who share your way of thinking; your society as a whole and its history. I guess that when you go to America, you feel that life as a fight, as a battle, has indeed been experienced there; life as an individual is both less protected, and more free. But the Americans have something that we lack, and that is a philanthropic loyalty to the grand institutions of their own invention. The feeling, for example, of giving money to the university that you went to; to think that you are going to be generous enough to return something as a result of your own affinities and choices -- I think this is quite admirable in the States. Probably because we are still enjoying the last traces of nineteenth century philanthropists; this occurred to me the other day in the Morgan Library in New York, where I was thinking about JP Morgan and his desire to share this faith in the great wealth of culture; what happens without these people? What happens when that feeling is gone? Finally, it's quite surprising to look at the structures that the States has developed to change scientific knowledge into technical capacity; this has really changed our lives. For example, we have been living under American presidents who perhaps haven't seemed so strong. Yet under them, all this science and technique of Silicon Valley has been working to change our lives until now, in a very real way

Michael Moran

Puerta de Atocha station, the largest in Spain, was extended by Moneo in 1985; the old hall, with its wrought iron vault, now functions as an indoor garden and retail area

Talking of the new world -- many firms are taking advantage of working in newer territories in China or India or the Middle East, but you haven't been tempted?

Well, if in Europe we maintain our anxieties surrounding our particular diversities, these issues are probably happening even more in places like India or China, in an even stronger way -- for example when you learn of how many different languages are contained within India itself, or how many different 'countries', in a sense, are contained within it. Probably it is too complex, or at least, I think so; I have such respect for those countries that I do not dare enter into the knowledge of their cultures in what would inevitably be the most superficial of ways. It is hard enough to know how to enter into the culture of Spain itself, with its past from Rome, its influences from the Middle East... As you start to delve into it, you realise that one lifetime alone is not enough. And then to think of entering into further, more distant cultures which are even more intertwined, older and more complex...

What about the fact that Spain is training so many young architects without the prospect of work here?

Well, we're going through a very painful situation. During the Eighties and Nineties, the lack of so many cultural and social infrastructures -- hospitals, schools, libraries and so on -- allowed Spanish architects the opportunity to work in remarkable conditions; for my generation and moreover the slightly younger ones, who are in their fifties and sixties now. They were even backed by a society that wanted to be represented by their architecture. But our weakness was that 20-25% of our PIB (GDP) was based on the building industry, and when the crisis came, Spain felt it in a very specific way. It was a tsunami generated by certain conditions of late capitalism. It's probably still hard to understand the precise financial mechanisms at fault, but when the crisis arrived in Spain, the impact was sudden; it occurred between morning and night, and its impact has lasted much longer than expected already. Now, architects have to survive however they can; for example, we used to have over 45 people in this office and now we have just over 20 --and that is due to some work in other countries, otherwise we would not even sustain those numbers.

It could be said that the crisis might also perform the task of purification. Perhaps we overdid things a bit, from some points of view. Probably one would need to be more severe, programmatically speaking, to figure out what you actually need to achieve; this would not be a bad thing. And I would say that even with the small number of jobs that do occur in Spain, jobs that allow you to apply a certain sense of close attention, to have an intensity of work not possible under 'normal' conditions -- that's not such a bad thing either. Which is to say, I don't believe that those who feel the call of architecture, emerging into such conditions -- they shouldn't give up. Living under economic constraints should not prevent them from making quality work. And in the meantime, we have the opportunity and the time to make our professional practice more aware and rigorous. But it would undoubtedly be wonderful to see the country change, and rapidly.

Prada Museum

Some would argue that the era of 'starchitects' is passing; what do you think about this term?

The heavy presence of architects in the press and in the view of the general public surely has to do with the fact that most of the larger jobs come from public commissions. If they are spending public money, of course the public wants to know exactly who and what is behind these things. And this is when the fantasy of architecture percolates as one more branch of culture, and as such, one that should be permitted the same freedoms as artists -- but architecture is not a matter of free expression either, as I have said. One should admit that architecture is contrived by the duties it has to society, and that means that architects probably don't need those celebrity conditions and liberties that artists have.

I wanted to ask you a little about your writing practice as well, which seems important to you.

I would say it is more and more important, somehow. More and more because writing is a way of clarifying your own mind... I wouldlike, of course, to leave behind a heritage that one can see. But for example, writing the lecture course that I am devising for Harvard in late April forces me to reconsider things: it is on the question 'What is knowledge for architects?' It's a big topic, I realise, buttoday, more than ever, it's very important.

Finally, do you have any clues of what you might share with us at the Royal Academy in London in July?

I have thought of a few topics -- I will offer some reflections that address the profession more generally, rather than focusing on specific examples of my own work. The way a building can be coupled with others yet keep its singularity, within a broadercommonality yet retain its sense of artistry or novelty. To reflect about the nature of what a building is. No matter that this is a question repeated by anyone involved in construction -- it's a question that always ought to be addressed.

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