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.

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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.

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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

A Fragrant Discovery in the Basque Country: Perfumería Benegas

I love the Basque Country for its many characters. These lands of Northern Spain, thanks to the moisture borne by the Atlantic draught, can boast the verdant mountains in stark contrast to the vast arid plains of Central Iberia. The inhabitants speak the perplexing tongue known as euskara in Basque or el vasco in Spanish. There is also the gastronomic delight of each pintxo — a bite-size savoury dish served on a piece of bread spiked with a toothpick or a skewer. And precisely because each pintxo is bite-sized, the myriads of flavour combinations to try leave the epicurean visitors besotted by the time their appetite is sated. If these were not sufficient still, art aficionados would find much to revel in at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao designed by architect Frank Gehry or in the city of Gernika-Lumo whose tragic war time inspired the namesake painting ‘Guernica by Pablo Picasso. Add to that the city of San Sebastián or Donostia in Basque, where La Concha Bay, Art Nouveau buildings, and the iconic Kursaal Congress Centre by architect Rafael Moneo charm us all, and I cannot ask for more of this beloved region.


Alderdi Eder Garden (left) overlooking La Concha Bay (right) in San Sebastián or Donostia

Nevertheless, it was also in San Sebastián that I made yet another discovery: Perfumería Benegas. Had it not been for the traffic that stopped me at the junction between Peñaflorida Kalea and Garibai Kalea, I could have easily walked past without giving much thought beyond beautiful and simple façade.

But the inside of Perfumería Benegas was a treasure trove. There was a zone dedicated to grooming products, but I was immediately caught by the sight of ‘bookshelves’ before me. My eyes quickly darted to them — one was even equipped with a ladder, reminding me of old libraries. They contained many leading and niche brands such as Annick Goutal, Jean Patou, Caron, Amouage, Diptyque, Ormonde Jayne, Keiko Mecheri, Montale, The Different Company, and Parfum de Nicolaï amongst others. What struck me as different, however, were the two counters of Guerlain and Chanel; they looked rather exclusive.


The complete range of Chanel including the Les Exclusif at Perfumería Benegas

Indeed, Perfumería Benegas carry the Les Exclusifs from Chanel and the Les Collections Exclusives from Guerlain. The Chanel counter, in particular, was equipped with a table with ceramic testers and the upholstery that is characteristically Chanel. At the back was the shelf with factices of Chanel N°5, some flacons, and other related paraphernalia.

Just as I was quite awe-struck by the offerings and designs, a poised bespectacled lady approached me to offer her assistance. Little did I know that she was Doña Asuncíon Benegas, the co-owner along with her sister Doña Charo Benegas and nephew Don Luis Gimeno. When inquired, she jokingly said that she had not been born in 1908, but Perfumería Benegas had been in business since and she was the third-generation.


Doña Asuncíon Benegas

Doña Asuncíon proceeded to introduce their own creations: Benegas Colonia and SSirimiri. Whereas Benegas Colonia is marked by a sunny disposition of citrus, SSirimiri seeks to capture the essence of San Sebastián with the freshness of bergamot and soft fluffy musks. A quick sniff assured that both were quality products. I was particularly enamoured of the story behind the latter. Doña Asuncíon explained that the composition had indeed been inspired by sirimirithe Basque term for the drizzle on grey days that blankets the city and turns the water of the Urumea River in viridian shades.

Alas, it was a pity that time was not on our side that day and I must bid farewell. Yet, I left with the knowledge that someday I would return. I had been in some dedicated perfumeries that sport niche and high-end range of products and services, but rarely had I ever felt comfortable in such establishments. The warm welcome by Doña Asuncíon, however, made the difference. The hospitality I received from the Basque had already been more than generous, but it was this particular encounter that took the experience to another level.

The only regret I have now is that I did not grab either SSirimiri or Benegas Colonia. Their eau de cologne styles might seem simple, but the quality and character therein more than suffice to leave me with nostalgia.

Update (04/10/2017): As a kind gesture on their part, Perfumería Benegas has recently sent me a flacon each of Benegas Cologne and SSirimiri. The former espouses the freshness of citrus in the style of Eau d’Orange Verte (Hermès, 2009/1979). A string of citrusy notes, from lemon and bergamot to bitter-green petitgrain makes way to mossy musky woods in the manner of a classical eau de cologne. I have happily splashed Benegas Cologne liberally in the morning, for a good wake-up call. The latter, meanwhile, toys with the idea of the drizzles in Donostia. From the cold clarity of peppery bergamot to the metallic musk, SSirimiri is fresh and cold, just as the drizzles would be. Whether one likes it classical or modern, both eaux are a great way to remember this charming city by.