SMALL TOWN, BIG WORLD VIEW I was born in Tudela, in northern Spain, in 1937. Although it seems paradoxical, I believe that growing up in a small town gave me a more complete perspective of life. A city child has a reduced view of the world, revolving around his home, his school; whereas a village child has more freedom, which allows him to understand the world better.
SOLID FOUNDATIONS I was a very restless student at high school. I enjoyed studying philosophy but was more drawn to painting. My father, an industrial engineer, said it’d be better for me to study a more practical vocation, like architecture, so I went to architecture school in Madrid when I was 17. It was a very old-fashioned school in those days but, luckily, I got the opportunity to work for the professor I most admired, an important Spanish architect called Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza. I soon realised I could learn more with my maestro than at class, although I did relish some of my other subjects, such as history of architecture, with professor Leopoldo Torres Balbás.
CASTLES IN THE SKY When I graduated, in 1961, I left for Denmark to work with an architect who interested me enormously; Jørn Oberg Utzon, who designed the Sydney Opera House. I worked with him for a year – a year that was definitive for me, because it introduced me to a way of working that was nothing like I’d seen before. Sáenz de Oiza was an extraordinarily intelligent person, but full of doubt, while Utzon had no qualms about beginning construction of the Opera House without knowing exactly how it would be completed. Utzon had an incredible intuition for solving architectural problems.
THE ROAD TO ROME I returned to Spain in 1962 to complete my military service and then won a grant to study for two years at the Academy of Spain, in Rome. Rome was a true discovery for me. I had travelled to Paris, to London and Scandinavia, but I didn’t really know the Mediterranean world. Since then, Italian culture has been deeply connected to my life. Coming into contact with the historians, scholars and architects in Italy completed my idea of a city where architecture is very important. Later in life, I was fortunate to work on the Roman Art Museum, in Merida (1985); a building that reflected the city’s ancient Roman roots. In its day, Merida was perhaps the most important Roman city in Spain, but it later became a predominantly agricultural city. I wanted the building to provide a glimpse of the ancient city that was once there, and built the museum space using Roman construction systems.
WHAT IS ARCHITECTURE? I’ve always been involved with teaching: first at the Madrid University School of Architecture, then as a professor at the architecture school in Barcelona. The late 60s were tough times for academics in Spain (with student protests against dictator Francisco Franco’s regime in 1968), but it encouraged us architects to find ways of expressing ourselves, whether through publications, conferences or teaching. I began making contacts overseas, and went to work in the United States in 1976 – first at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, in New York, then for Princeton in 1982. During Christmas, 1984, they offered me the post of chairman of the School of Architecture at Harvard, which I took up for five years. Meanwhile, however, I had begun to win a number of important projects in Spain, such as the remodelling of Madrid’s Atocha Railway Station, the L’illa Diagonal shopping centre, in Barcelona, and the transformation of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, in Madrid. By 1990, I had no choice but to dedicate myself to my professional work. But I will always consider myself associated with teaching and academic investigation; that desire to ask what architecture is, and how we should do it.
BEST-LAID PLANS The 2007 extension of the Museo del Prado, in Madrid, was a difficult and painful experience for me, but a tremendously satisfying one. Nearly 800 projects were presented at an international tender; only two years later were these narrowed down to 10. My project won, and consequently became the object of a lot of criticism. The extension was really in the only area that allowed the continuity between the original Prado museum and the new one, which absorbed part of what was once the Jerónimos Cloister. It was a complex and sophisticated architectural project. It finally went ahead after nearly 10 years of effort, and I’m very satisfied to see that the new Prado allows visitors to feel they are entering a house that belongs to them, and to come close to some of Spain’s most valuable masterpieces, whether a Velazquez or a Goya. The project suffered much controversy, whether from colleagues, neighbours or even people within the actual museum who at first weren’t convinced about doing the extension. But, well, as architects we have to get used to thinking that with public projects, people will take an interest in giving their opinion, no?
HIGH HONG KONG In Hong Kong, everything is built vertically. It’s a city in a continual state of change; its shape evolves like life itself, in front of the sea. Somebody who lived here 60 years ago wouldn’t recognise it. In fact, I was here five years ago and I’ve seen many things that weren’t here before, things that in some way alter the city’s physical presence. But while one can appreciate the beauty of this lively city, I believe it’s important to respond to the unique characteristics of its landscape, such as the coexistence of this archipelago, with the islands, sea and mountains. I’m not convinced such conspicuous high-rise housing is the solution. Here the towers have lost their symbolic value, even the ones on the harbourfront. There was a time when the Bank of China tower was the one that stood out most in Hong Kong; that’s no longer the case. I wouldn’t dare offer my advice: after all, there is a quality and a respect for urban life here that you don’t find in all modern cities. There’s an effort to resolve the need for living space.
A LIFE’S WORK Looking at this retrospective today I have the sensation that life has given me the opportunity to say what I wanted to. If there was one thing I’d still like to achieve, it would be to plan a complete residential neighbourhood in which architecture really helped contribute to enjoying daily life in a small city.
The “Rafael Moneo: A Theoretical Reflection from the Professional Practice” exhibition is on display at d-mart, Hong Kong Design Institute, 3 King Ling Road, Tseung Kwan O, until January 14.