The Humanistic Buildings of Rafael Moneo


They say nature is the best teacher. This could not be more true for the works of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rafael Moneo. His iconic Kursaal Congress Centre in the city of San Sebastián is one of the reasons why I love the Basque Country. I admire his creative works that resonate beautifully with their contexts. They are marked by simplicity and offer a sense of emotion through the plans or manipulations of natural light or of textures.

For this reason, I can only count myself fortunate that I would see Señor Moneo in person merely two months after my visit to Donostia. There happened to be an exhibition in Hong Kong in which his works from 1961 to 2013 were showcased, and Moneo himself discussed selected works: the National Museum of Roman Art in Mérida, the Kursaal Congress Centre in Donostia, the City Hall of Murcia, and the Northwest Corner Building of Columbia University. It was most insightful to listen to his ideas and sensibilities.


The arcade of relieving arches in the National Museum of Roman Art in Mérida, Spain

Already with the National Museum of Roman Art completed in 1986 in Mérida, Moneo ‘did not want it to be a container, a conventional museum’. He believed that ‘the new building should convey at once what the old one was’ in referring to the rich heritage of the Roman city. By employing Roman discharging arches and Roman-style flat bricks, he erected an arcade that blends seamlessly with the ancient identity of Mérida. The buttresses, arches, and windows all conspire to create a natural extension. Rafael Moneo indeed stood on the shoulders of past giants whilst conceiving the utmost expression of Meridian pride. ‘The city deserves to have the pictures of both cities, [the old and the new], together, making the true Mérida’. Moneo believed that the way the Romans built should be a pride here.

kuursaal eus.jpg

Lit like beacons of celebration at dusk, the iconic boulders form the complex of the Kursaal Congress Centre in San Sebastián, Spain

The Kursaal Congress Centre, my favourite piece, was built in 1999 relation to what Moneo called ‘geographical accidents’. The city of San Sebastián in Northern Spain is filled with a collection of geographical accidents: island, boulders, and beaches that give a sense of natural frames. And, Moneo wanted to ‘recover those sunken rocks’. To do that, he proposed two ‘rocks’ as the core of the design, precipitated perhaps by some sense of minimalism. They are essentially two boxes, each enclosed in an external layer of ribbed and textured glasses. This creates an open walkway lit by natural light that allows freedom of movement around the auditorium. At night, the structure comes alive like beacons of celebration; it is after all a place of public gathering and performances. The Kursaal feels as though two big boulders were simply thrown there. One cannot help but feel that they have dotted the terrain since time immemorial.


Façade of the City Hall of Murcia faces the imposing Baroque traditions of the Cathedral of Murcia and the  Episcopal Palace.

Completed in 1998, the Murcia City Hall is an annex to the City Hall that happens to frame the historic square of Murcia. Here, Moneo’s unflinchingly modern façade might seem to contradict the rest of the edifices that include the sixteenth-century Cathedral of Murcia and the Episcopal Palace from 1768 – two buildings of strong historical connotation. But the surprise lies in the asymmetrical nature of staggered columns and irregular openings. In fact, Moneo was engaging in a dialogue with the historical façades as the motifs reference the many images of church altarpieces. It is an encoded intellectual discourse.

arch daily.jpg

Constrained, but not congested: the Northwest Corner Building of Columbia University may seem limited in space, but its designs encourage interactions aplenty.

And even when the construction tends to prevail in the case of the Northwest Corner Building of Columbia University that was completed in 2010, he never fails to offer a sense of engagement with the context, the site, and the community. Here, the constraint presented in the form of a gymnasium below the site  and limited space made the construction challenging. However, Moneo fulfilled the challenge by offering spaces for social interactions. For example, the wide exterior staircase connects the outside and the inside easily. And, on the upper storeys, the loft-like laboratory and office spaces encourage exchanges. The bridges that connect to neighbouring buildings also encourage interdisciplinary dialogue. In a way, Moneo’s designs force us to look around and at each other. The building may be confined to a corner, but it has plenty of generosity.

In contrast to the monolithic and intimidating forms to which most architectural modernism otherwise lends itself, the works of Rafael Moneo elevate the spirit. I like them because they may form a continuing dialogue with the precedents, or at times create an intellectual discourse, or resonate with the community. I would even go so far as to praise his humanistic touch. In the face of buildings of soulless glasses and concretes, his is a most welcome change.

‘Rafael Moneo: A Theoretical Reflection from the Professional Practice’ features archive materials from 1961 to 2013 and runs from 22th October 2016 to 14th January 2017 at the Hong Kong Design Institute (HKDI).

Sources: ArchDaily, HKDI