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9 April 2010

Interview with Rafael Moneo

Magda Anglès and Judit Carrera


The renowned architect describes his experience as president of the jury of the Prize and talks about his particular perspective on the city and contemporary architecture

A week after the winners of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2010 were announced we visited Rafael Moneo at his studio in a two-storey house in the El Viso district of Madrid. Surrounded by a small garden, the building, an example of early twentieth-century Madrid-style rationalist architecture and at ease with its chipped façade, bears the sheen of distinction endowed by the passing of time. We make ourselves comfortable in a cosy living room in which piles of books on architecture are scattered around tables, chairs and floor. Rafael Moneo describes for us his experience as President of the Jury and talks about his particular perspective on the city and contemporary architecture as he sketches on a piece of tracing paper.

How would you evaluate the results of the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2010?

This award constitutes an index of what is understood by public space, both for architects and for the general public. It is an indicator, a witness, a sample of what it means at a particular time in urban-planning thinking and in the present-day situation of architecture and urban design. The fact of having awarded the Prize ex aequo to two projects like the Magdeburg Library in Germany and the Oslo Opera House in Norway is something natural and no arbitrary choice. This point has a certain interest.

The Magdeburg Library reveals its goals very directly: the users themselves are very keen to strip buildings of their monumental condition and directly claim their values in terms of use, values that generically contribute towards underpinning the notion of virtue that goes hand-in-hand with culture. With a minimal intervention one is made aware of the essential role of urban design. Moreover, it embraces the desire to recycle and stylistically speaking, too, this has turned out to be an unprejudiced building. It shows a certain lack of interest in strictly formal inquiry and architectural investigation and yet it is open to other cultural aspects of wider scope, whether it is in its contents or through its recycling of all these features of 1950s architecture. Here, inadvertently, there is a polemical assumption of the political language of the fifties as an alternative to the more exhibitionist and exuberant architectural language of the 1990s and the first decade of this century. Again, one finds the reformist volition of a small community in its wish to transform a road junction into something that has urban life.

This is a highly interesting project and it is not in contradiction with the other ex aequo winner, the Oslo Opera House, one of the most significant buildings of recent years and of greatest intellectual ambition in being such a high-ranking building in such a mature country and, moreover, one with so many means available. With this project Snøhetta presents something that is very characteristic of architecture today. The Oslo Opera House is a really symptomatic example of the desire that presently prompts architects to make architecture dissolve and become landscape. There is something of this in the proposals of all these people who understand landscape, gardens and parks as public space. Located in a place that is as urban as the port of Oslo, where there are also buildings like the City Hall, and with such a will and such desire to express and materialise what a city is, this project strives to shed the most distinctive features of buildings in order to dissolve into the natural setting. The ramps of the Opera House, for example, end up dropping into the sea so that they are transformed into elements that are almost natural scenery: the building aspires to be topography. Yet when the visitor goes inside to see what the building is about, he or she discovers an opera theatre in the purely traditional Italian style. Here we have the flagrant contradiction between something that comes out of urban life, for example an opera house, and a recipient – a work of architecture – that wants to be landscape. This kind of imposition inevitably occurs. The jury recognised this value and intrinsic difficulty.

How might one explain this adulteration of architecture by landscape?

I believe that this is basically the result of two factors. The first we should mention is a deliberate confrontation with the architecture of the previous generation which, like it or not, is understood nowadays as exaggeratedly monumental. If we accept that the works of Frank Gehry and the bold architecture of Rem Koolhaas dominated the architecture of the eighties and nineties, we’ll confirm that they’ve had no problem in getting into the monumental dimension by way of hyperbole. The second reason, which might be the more influential one here, is the desire to bring architecture close to nature which, in keeping with the dominant ideology, might be described as ecological. Today’s architects are less interested in pursuing a city under the sway of bourgeois discretion – the nineteenth-century city, the one that Aldo Rossi liked – one that observes the rules and, yes, a city in which nature, the ecological dimension is present. Garden cities aspired to nature as a goal when the new means of transport enabled city-dwellers to recover the nature revealed by the English landscapers. The garden city satisfied the ideals of people who believed that social life and the natural environment didn’t have to be understood as opposites. Nevertheless, critics of the garden city soon appeared. Le Corbusier argued that the garden city is a complete waste. The fact is that this present return to nature of architecture that purports to be ecological totally disregards the garden city. The proposals of the ecological architecture that is produced for us today abound in visual aspects, enveloping its constructions in green. Architecture vanishes beneath an artificial mantle of plants, the efficiency and cost of which should be called into question. However this ecological pitch has become a cliché and, accordingly, architecture now seems to want to dissolve into the landscape. A critique of the kinds of architecture that presently claim to be ecological and sustainable is yet to be done. In the real world, genuinely ecological responses need to be sought in primitive architecture. One must recognise that a lot of ancient architecture has been equally or more ecological than today’s, despite the efforts architects make nowadays to emulate it. I don’t mean by this that there should be a return to vernacular architecture, but it should be recognised that rationality is more present and more evident in the primitive. Rationality is reflected in the form of what is constructed. To some extent, the fewer the means available, the more rationality appears in the constructive response. Today there is such a profusion of means that the builder sets about the job apparently without limitations. This leads to the notion that anything is constructible, to a new concept that seems to accept as legitimate anything that can be constructed. One should be talking about buildability as the only limit to the architect’s imagination. Naturally, this standpoint that is so rife today bears little relation with the rationality that ought to be implicit to true ecological architecture.

In some of your writings you’ve spoken of the importance of place in earlier times, contextualisation or the “murmur of the site”. Do you think that this notion is on the way out?

I believe in the site. One fears that the new cities, such as those in the Persian Gulf, lack this support that, at a certain point, ensures that cities are bound up with geography, that each city finds its sense through its location. I very much fear that they are no more than the expression of financial operations since they are occupied by the people who are constructing them and are nothing but commodities bought up by investors who may never occupy them. This lack of interest in context unquestionably leaves architecture without the incentives that site bestows and that are so important when it comes to imagining what is constructed. What I’ve just remarked might be extended to the materials that stimulate the mind of the person who’s going to construct. We’re talking about a time in which the versatility of techniques and the possibility of constructing almost anything mean that the builder does not understand or apply the positive limitations that used to exist in the proper use of a particular material. The concept of form was once intimately linked to materials and techniques of construction and, at bottom, the architect found in such limitations the starting point and sustenance of his or her formal fantasies. Somebody who constructed in stone faced certain limits and obligations, the definition of form: the reasons for constructing were implicit in the material. Today, form is approached without these restraints and limitations. The facilities offered now by the figurative worlds represented by the computer, without this filter of constructive knowledge, means that new builders find that they have less underpinning.

It might be said that one only constructs over the constructed. Constructing over the constructed always provides clues, permits contrasts to be established and makes it possible to testify to the value of what one thinks, which doesn’t happen when the work can be produced autonomously and independently. Rarely does an autonomous and independent work happen without some limitations. Again, it is more beautiful to think that one is working on an unfinished building and contributing to an endless job, which is the construction of the planet at any given time. Our task is always linked up with something bigger. It is beautiful to think of the history of cities in this way. Seen from this point of view, the city has less to do with the city imagined from utopian thinking. I like to see the city as a building on which we are all working but one that we shall never see completed. One cannot think that any figure is completely closed, that any city has attained its plenitude.

The beautiful thing about the architect’s endeavour is the ability to divest oneself totally of one’s work. The architect transfers to the building an instrumental condition, one of use. At times people tend to think that this happens with all kinds of work or artistic production. Does the same thing happen with a poem? I’m not sure. It’s true that a poem doesn’t end in the concepts brought together on the page and also that it is multiplied with the readers, but it doesn’t happen in the same way. The bonds that join the building and the architect are weaker than those between poem and author. I believe that the grandeur of architecture lies in its ability to bestow life – its own life – on what is being constructed. I don’t know if this happens with a poem and think, in any case, that it is less so with a painting. The idea of the reader as owner of the text is a half truth. However, inasmuch as the building, and not the architect, is owner of itself the person who uses it takes possession of it, makes it his or hers in a more natural way. The architectural work is associated with the architect but buildings have their own life and establish a direct, immediate relationship with their users. It is only relatively speaking that an architect is owner of the building.

The notion of public space has traditionally been associated with the idea of democracy but to what point does physical proximity between strangers in the city generate political community?

I’ve just got back from the capital of Peru and the phenomenon of Lima is that of shantytown construction. It’s a really interesting city whose population has multiplied by ten over the last decades. When Mario Vargas Llosa wrote La ciudad y los perros and Conversación en la catedral Lima possibly had some six or eight hundred thousand inhabitants. Today there are ten or fifteen times as many. Country people come to the city wanting another way of life and the extremely modest do-it-yourself construction they are immediately engaged in means that the city is understood as physical proximity. Lima’s shantytowns are city: the people who live in them believe they are constructing the city, and indeed they are. There is a whole tradition in this kind of construction but it doesn’t mean that there are unwritten rules to be respected, or that there is a certain notion of order. The other way of making a city is constructing infrastructure. This is not the case in Lima where what I think the essential thing to recognise is that it is the physical proximity of people that gives sense to the setting wherein architecture intervenes, and this immediately becomes city. People who live in the shantytowns of Lima don’t see proximity as a problem for living in community. On the contrary, they understand it as what they seek and what they value most.

The classical link between physical space and democracy is related with the awareness that it is in life with others – and only on the basis of life with others – that we may understand our passage through this world. The city is the framework for this life in common and this life in common is what leads to these aspects of specialisation in the city that ends up being understood as a set of buildings reflecting different tasks, whether we’re talking about a school, a theatre or a market. Giving to the word “market” this connotation, whereby everything that one would like to do, acquire or possess is accessible, is a good way of understanding the city. I think it was Max Weber who understood the city as a market, but I’ve often had the occasion to quote the words of Louis Kahn who says that the city is the place where a child learns, or can learn, what he or she wants to be. I agree because it is linked up with this idea of market and also of professions, ways of life, how one would like to be in this world, in what profession to devote one’s time, and all this can only be learned in contact with others. This is why I’m loath to think about a virtual, disperse city, without contact with other people.

Unfortunately, the modern city is seeing a decline in the diversity of possible vocations. In the end you don’t know if this city that Louis Kahn was speaking of, where there were carpenters, upholsterers, ironmongers, shopkeepers, day labourers, scribes, and all the trades, has anything to do with the city today. Yet this is the city for which we feel nostalgia. And this explains why we feel so good in old cities that conserve the memory of a city, like a Noah’s Ark of the professions. Sad to say, today’s city often has to be seen as a mere theme park.

Tourism is a very destructive thing. All the mayors who want to turn their cities into tourist places don’t know that the greatest luxury a city can enjoy is not to have tourists. Barcelona is still big enough to resist being destroyed by tourism since it is concentrated in certain neighbourhoods but there are many small cities that are consumed by tourism, and one might mention Florence, Venice or Rome itself. At bottom is globalisation, along with the ease with which we move around and enjoy other cities. It’s true that our pleasure in different worlds comes at the price of admitting that they don’t belong to us and this fact of not belonging will always mean that, with other cities, we can only experience them as foreign, distant worlds. I think that the city experienced only with the tempo of tourism is hard to understand as a city. I don’t know if we’re talking about the same relationship that one can have with a book. And it’s not because one can read the city like a book but because there comes a time in which one enjoys the condition of the city, its plenitude, in a way that is not so very different from the way one takes pleasure in the integrity of a book or the synoptic view of a painting. A city is enjoyed; I’m not saying contemplated. A city is perhaps one of the most complete materialisations of the life of men and history. Few manifestations so completely include time and present, the throb of life.

Although it’s a slippery concept, could you tell us what exactly defines the city and how it differs from public space?

The whole city is public space par excellence. What distinguishes city from home would be what establishes the difference between public and private. The city accommodates the private but it’s really the set of all the spaces of citizens, and this is the beautiful thing about those cities in which the private has no place. There shouldn’t be any restrictions applied to life in the city. I don’t think doors should be put on cities. Railway stations are the epitome of public space as they have never had to close their doors. In this regard, public space covers everything from a street to a park. When architects present their projects of parks and gardens for this Prize and do so in such a wholesale way, aren’t they issuing a warning of what we are talking about now? Which are the buildings of public vocation? The private is linked with the sensation of property you have when you open the door of your home, but there are also cultures where the doors of houses are left open. I’d like to associate the private only with intimate life. Public is where you’re totally available for others, while in the intimate realm you’re only concerned about yourself. The dichotomy between city and home is what makes citizens of people. The house remains as the last redoubt of the intimate. The city is everything that does not affect the life of the intimate: all of that is city; all of that is public space.

One might think of public space as those places in which people cohabit. Public space doesn’t have to be associated with places that have a certain crowd capacity. Large public gathering spaces have less sense today, or they only have it as spectacles in themselves. The space of St. Peter’s in Rome is at once a place in which the notions of crowds and hierarchy come together. Sometimes there is confusion when the public domain is understood as territory where the masses can be comfortable, but the masses can be comfortable in very different ways: you can feel very content on a Sunday morning in the El Retiro park when it’s crowded but this doesn’t mean that El Retiro isn’t fantastic, too, when you’re there alone. The space of the citizen has this ambivalence, this capacity for permitting the experience of the intimate and sharing life with others.

Your long experience of teaching at Harvard University must have given you an exceptional standpoint from which to view what is happening in the architectural domain in Europe. How is the European city perceived from the United States?

The American city is less organic, more abstract than the European one. The European city can still be explained with the metaphor of a city that has the attributes of a body. In Europe one can still make out what would be the belly of the city, and what would be the head and its members. With the American city, everything is more inorganic. The inorganic condition goes with newly-constructed cities. We can simplify a lot by saying that the American city is the garden city plus downtown. This American city very well reflects how much the individual and respect for his or her rights inspire American society. In the European city, the individual is included within numerous social circles that, while they curb his or her freedom, offer security and support in precariousness. This occurs to a lesser extent in the American city, where the individual is more alone, something that doubtless reflects the dichotomy between the single-family-home city and the downtown zone understood only as the city of business. Yet generalisation always makes one uneasy. Cities are so different. New York is almost a European city. If books, music and art are loved in a city, then it is a city like New York. But let’s go back to what I wanted to say. In general terms, it would be this solitude of the individual that would prevail in the American city, in a society that, on the other hand, tends to give so much value to its institutions. The great invention of America is institutions, whether they are universities or cultural and aid organisations connected with philanthropy and this is because, since social circles are weak, individuals trust in the elective affinities that are set up through institutions. In them the nerve centre of social life is to be found.

I’ve sometimes said that the European city comes from the encircled, walled city but not the American city because the walls are already there with the Atlantic and the Pacific. They are cities that have not needed to protect themselves, haven’t been required to give a sense of closing from their very layout. Without this awareness of limit, the American city can have less form and hence greater abstraction. The huge dimensions of America, moreover, explain why it is no accident that the Americans have found support in the telephone, the aeroplane and the mass media, making them consubstantial with their way of life. In the end, America has had to find the means whereby the whole country can live together. It may be that the new mass media make it possible to feed the fantasy that American, in its immensity, is one single city.

Magda Anglès and Judit Carrera
Madrid, April 2010

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