In cinematic terms, if Renzo Piano, Gehry and Meier are the reigning Spielbergs of contemporary architecture, producing successful (or almost as successful) versions of an initial winning formula over and over, Rafael Moneo might be its Mike Leigh: highly talented and critically revered, but in the age of the star architect, in the United States, at least, we barely know his name. During a career of more than 40 years, the Madrid-based Moneo has produced buildings of startling quality, no two of which are alike. Working mainly in his native Spain, which has regarded him as something of a national hero since his National Museum of Roman Art in Mérida opened in 1986, Moneo has approached commissions with the goal of making architecture that is simultaneously an ornament to the Old World and a beacon of the new. His buildings are extremely site-specific, usually physically elegant and charged with experiential surprise, often in the plan or through internal manipulations of natural light. Always born of some well-considered relation to context, Moneo’s buildings are not objects meant to promote themselves, nor do they condescend.
There are a handful of projects by Moneo (whose full name is José Rafael Moneo Vallés) in the United States, some of which, like the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, or Columbia University’s recent Northwest Corner building, are among his best works and have received major attention. But it’s clear that the buildings that get raves here are more often the undulating, glassy or flashy ones — proponents of their own manufactured drama and shrill assertions of relevance. If we as Americans think about architecture at all, we praise buildings that speak in headlines. As a culture we have a tendency to defeat the kind of architectural subtlety Moneo has been able to so successfully bring to European cities. There was a time, in the 1950s and ’60s, when the patronage existed for intellectual modernism by architects like Philip Johnson and Marcel Breuer, albeit with mixed results. But in the United States, our design DNA — architectural and otherwise — has always tended toward big ideas: big breasts, big cars, big, easy-to-read gestures. Moneo makes architecture that refuses to show off. His buildings are woven into cities rather than imposed upon them, and might as easily be about texture rather than form. For Americans, now used to being entertained by architecture in the vein of freedom towers, PATH stations and titanium, his kind of excellence can be easy to overlook.
“He is the architect’s architect, and very underrated in the U.S.,” the visionary design patron and hotelier Ian Schrager says. Schrager, who has made it a business to know what’s good before anybody else, has been a fan since he saw Moneo’s National Museum of Roman Art. A couple of years ago, he discussed doing a residential project in Manhattan with the architect, shrugging off the fact that Moneo is something of an insider’s secret. “Rafael doesn’t covet attention the way some architects do,” Schrager said. “But in terms of talent, he’s second to none. His work elevates the spirit.”
The way modernism usually gets talked about is in highly intellectualized architecture-school speak: intimidating and dense. Moneo himself was chair of the architecture department at Harvard from 1985 to 1990, and his writing about his own work can be a tough read, academic and laden with theory. He’s entitled to it. He won the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor, in 1996. But let’s just put all that aside for a moment, look at a few Moneo buildings and try to understand why they’re revered in Europe and not so well known on this side of the Atlantic. And what we’re missing.
“Crispy rocks.” This is how Moneo describes the jumping-off point of his proposal for an auditorium complex and convention center near the ocean in San Sebastián. With this design, won in competition and completed in 1999, the architect sought to make a connection between his pair of buildings and the large boulders piled up along the sea wall, which the asymmetrical glassy cubes convincingly do. At night, these become lanterns that beckon, signifying that the Kursaal is a place for performances and public gathering. The light projecting through ribbed and textured glass conveys a feeling of happiness, but somehow nostalgia as well. (San Sebastián, now a surfing and tapas mecca, was once a belle époque seaside playground.) To this is added the humanizing effect of having poised and angled each cube as if to imply movement, like a dancer’s plié, before making a leap toward the sea. These are some of Moneo’s few “object” buildings, but once context is explained, you can’t help but look at them as indeed having sprung from the terrain. Can you imagine if the Javits Convention Center in New York, instead of quoting 19th-century Crystal Palace exposition architecture in banal contemporary materials, had been designed like this?
Iglesia de Iesu
To learn about an architect’s philosophy, sometimes it’s best to start small. Moneo recently completed a jewel-like church in San Sebastián, Spain, the Iglesia de Iesu. Stark and cubelike on the outside, with a supermarket in the basement where the crypt would usually be, this modest parish church is a masterpiece, and expresses everything Moneo has come to stand for. The simplicity of the interior sets up the main experience, which comes from above: natural light emanating from the perimeter of the ceiling, which is suspended, sculpture-like, in the form of a distorted Greek cross (similar to the lighting effects Tadao Ando has mingled within concrete). So minimal it sparkles, the spartan church is in every way the opposite of Moneo’s own Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, whose architecture had similar minimalist intentions but has been decorated and accessorized to the point of obscuring them, at least on the inside. At the Iesu, the results are uncompromised.
Murcia City Hall
This building, which is essentially a facade, was designed in the mid-1990s, and has spawned a host of descendants. (Among the most faithful and ironic is the luxury apartment building at 25 Bond Street in New York.) Not one of them, however, has the power of Moneo’s original site-driven premise: the unapologetic and, at the time, innovative modernist rhythms of the Murcia facade form the fourth wall of an intimate and historic piazza. It’s a mysterious composition: the bar-code-style screen of staggered columns and irregular openings present a building that almost looks as if it doesn’t exist. Windows are glimpsed, but little clue is given as to what is really going on internally. What is clear is that Moneo’s intent for the facade of his building is to engage in a dialogue with the Baroque exterior of the Murcia Cathedral it directly faces. Hayden Salter, an associate in Moneo’s Madrid office, explains that the Murcia facade also refers to the composition of images in church altarpieces. Moneo can always be counted upon to encrypt his motives rather than simply reveal them, and here it is no different. The visual liveliness of this project is taken by most to be an aesthetic exercise, but in fact it’s an intellectual one.
National Museum of Roman Art
At first sight it’s hard to realize that this museum, the first to put Moneo on the international map, is even a new work of architecture. With details like buttresses, relieving arches and windows with divided lights and shutters, it looks regional. And the architecture is not so much modern as naked. It’s also hard to read the facade (seen on Page 107), which resembles some kind of early-20th-century industrial building (with a thread of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art running through it). Miracle of miracles, given the ’80s timing and the quite literal embrace of classical forms and materials: it’s not postmodern. Mérida is a complete original outside and in. Although the interior is what it’s known for — a series of monumental arches of thin Roman brick of which the whole museum is made (the same brick the Romans used under stucco), there really isn’t a division between inside and out. Moneo’s structure is about the material itself. He insisted that the clay for these bricks be sourced locally, applying to architecture something akin to the “terroir” theory of cooking. A museum hovering over an archaeological site, Mérida is a building that teaches us about Roman antiquities, Roman construction methods and also modernism — specifically its potential to be expressive in the hands of a designer who is unafraid to engage the past and be inventive at the same time.
Why doesn’t the United States make them like this? Everybody knows Los Angeles’s Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, but not many people can name the architect of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels a few streets away. Moneo may be the only living designer whose work, in its versatility and conceptual sensitivity, comes closest to epoch-defining talents like Alvar Aalto and Paul Rudolph. And yet in the United States we seem to be in a moment — well, it’s been a lot longer than a moment — when important buildings are either expected to generate spectacle or belong to a recognizably branded style. Context, suitability and intelligence are considered secondary to provocation. The problem with this is that the built environment is something we have to live with for a long time, and excitement, once tasted, has a tendency to distort the other ways a building can be important.
On a visit to the United States last year, Moneo gave a lecture at the New Orleans Museum of Art in conjunction with Tulane University, where Grover Mouton is the director of the regional urban design center and an admirer of his Spanish colleague. “Rafael is so humanistic,” Mouton said, “which comes out not just in his buildings, but when you speak to him.” Asked about the state of architecture in America today, and why there isn’t more room for buildings that take the risk of speaking softly, Mouton, who was awarded the Rome Prize in 1972-73 and is known in architectural circles for being something of a provocateur, abandoned the pleasantries and offered an answer whose bluntness lived up to his reputation: “That kind of architecture doesn’t happen so much here because the vocabulary doesn’t lend itself for the American mind to understand. We don’t have the base for it, as the Europeans do, or the lifestyle for it. Here, it’s more about the value of the cost than the value of the work — like a fancy contemporary art collection.”
Winston Churchill was not talking about architecture when he famously said of us that “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the other alternatives.” If we are talking about the alternatives of architecture, it may first require a trip to Spain.
José Rafael Moneo Vallés nació en Tudela (Navarra) en 1937. Estudió Arquitectura en la Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid obteniendo su título en 1961. En su época de estudiante trabajó con Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza. Tras un año en el estudio de Jørn Utzon en 1963 gana la beca de la Academia de España en Roma, permaneciendo en esta ciudad hasta 1965. Moneo ha enseñado en las escuelas de arquitectura de Madrid y Barcelona y ha sido chairman de la Graduate School of Design de Harvard University entre 1985 y 1990, donde actualmente ocupa la cátedra Josep Lluis Sert. Su actividad docente ha ido acompañada de su labor como conferenciante y crítico y sus artículos han sido publicados en numerosas revistas internacionales. En 2004 publicó Ansiedad Teórica y Estrategia Proyectual en Ocho Arquitectos Contemporáneos y en 2010 Apuntes sobre 21 Obras. Entre sus obras construidas se destacan el Museo Nacional de Arte Romano (1985), L’Illa Diagonal en Barcelona (1993), La Fundación Pilar y Joan Miró en Palma de Mallorca (1993), El Museo de Arte y Arquitectura de Estocolmo (1998), El Kursaal Auditorio y Centro de Congresos Center en San Sebastián (1999), la Ampliación del Ayuntamiento de Murcia (1999), la Catedral de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles (2002) o la Ampliación del Museo del Prado (2007). Moneo ha recibido numerosas distinciones entre las que se destacan el Pritzker Prize for Architecture en 1996 la Royal Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects en 2003 y el Premio Príncipe de Asturias de las Artes en 2012.