Conversation with Rafael Moneo

Rafael Moneo has just opened an exhibition at the headquarters of the Barrié Foundation in La Coruña which contains an important sample of his work as an architect from 1962 to date. The exhibition documents  fifty years of  uninterrupted  work,  filtered  through  the  leitmotif  of some drawings which reveal the importance for Moneo of representing architecture as a design tool. Between the neat lines of these drawings we can also learn the trends which architectural culture has followed in the second half of the 20th century, and how it has evolved in architects’ hands.

At the 2012 Venice Biennale, Moneo was already participating exclusively with drawings of some of his works in Madrid. Perhaps this was a deliberate gesture. He may have sought to divert attention from the way images can be perceived as spectacular in our modern society of the spectacle, advocated many years ago by Debord. Looking back on his work as a teacher as well, I recall that he arrived at the composition department of the ETSAB—Barcelona School of Architecture—in  1976 with  a course he gave together with Juan Antonio Cortés entitled ‘Comments on drawings by 20 current architects’.  Following the clues offered by the drawings, these lessons were taught with the aim of reconstructing their creators’ design mechanisms. And in one of the texts he has written in the last decade, perhaps less well-known but nevertheless lucid and revealing, Devising, representing, building, he proposes a drawing- based itinerary through the history of architecture, from the Lion Gate in Mycenae to the Tel Aviv Museum by Preston Scott Cohen.

Rafael Moneo, friendly and energetic, personally opens the door to his studio and even before we sit down he goes to look for one of the recently received blue books containing the drawings exhibited at the Barrié Foundation. We start by commenting on one of them, a foldout  page for the 1969 call for proposals for the redevelopment of the old quarter in Zaragoza. Moneo asks for the original drawings to be brought up from the archive, except for the plan view published, which is in the exhibition, and the meeting room table is immediately covered by enormous drawings, some drawn in ink, on tracing paper, others in pencil, on sketch paper, which, almost fifty years later, we handle with the respect you would unfold an old parchment with.

CD. Many thanks for meeting me today, Rafael, and congratulations on the recent Barrié exhibition, which we have been following in the press. The catalogue is exquisite. I have called it a catalogue because it has been published to accompany the exhibition. But it is much more than a conventional catalogue. It is a valuable book, edited with great sensitivity,  with  a craftsman’s  touch.  I very much liked the concept: reviewing your work via such eloquent drawings. And the challenge of doing without attractive photographs, entrusting the content to a few texts and the drawings themselves, strikes me as an act of integrity.

We were commenting  just a moment ago that you have included the redevelopment project of the historic centre of  Zaragoza. At  that  time,  mentioning  that  there  were some criteria for work performed in historic centres, such as attempting to make it fit in with the rest of the city—in this specific case bringing with it a series of public spaces, such as the extension of the Paseo de la Independencia— or removing some buildings of interest, represented a clearly ‘Italian’ standpoint. What do you remember about that project?

RM. The fact is we did it very carefully.  If we think about the current situation,  we realise  that we have ended up doing  things  completely  differently to  how  we proposed. The purpose of the drawings for the call for proposals was twofold: on the one hand, understanding and taking on board the significance of the street El Coso as part of the perimeter ring surrounding the city, and, on the other, connecting it with the street network in the old quarter. An important point for us was where El Coso meets the Paseo de la Independencia. Our solution was a little more complex than at first appears. We made the vehicular traffic of the Paseo de la Independencia go under El Coso without interrupting the traffic on it, using a walkway—very typical of that time—to keep the movement of pedestrians at the Paseo level, and created two large squares on both sides of El Coso separated by a low building. The result was that the city fabric was thinned out where the Paseo de la Independencia meets the old quarter, and we stopped the Paseo de la Independencia corridor from ending abruptly on reaching El Coso. What we have now is more violent, it seems to me, as there is no possible continuity of the Paseo. What I think  we can classify as violent is this‘T’ junction. We tried to find a way of inserting the Paseo de la Independencia  in the historic centre with the aid of this walkway and the two squares, thus extending El Coso on both sides and establishing the continuity of the fabric.

Another important  issue arose, which we called the ‘New Coso’.  You can  see it  clearly  in  the  cross-section.  The idea was to help us with a street parallel to El Coso, which appeared as a result of connecting the current Calle Cuatro de Agosto with Calle Verónica, demolishing the block which prevented both from connecting, and the former from leading to Jaime  I. What we achieved was to separate both traffic systems surrounding the perimeter of the old quarter: the first contains the old quarter to the north, and the second, open towards the south, embraces the Ensanche [a previous development to expand the city].  They both now have a section in common, namely El Coso. We created a ring between them, by duplicating El Coso, which  resulted in a far more fluid traffic flow, avoiding crossroads with traffic lights, which do not work very well. Traffic diagrams explain this clearly. This solution seems simple, but in actual fact it is quite sophisticated.  It is only understood when the project is viewed as the outcome of a reflection on the whole with the aim of including the historic centre in a much larger traffic scheme for the entire city.

CD. Yes, perhaps the first impression this carefully-drawn plan view conveys is that of a project which above all pays attention to the small scale. It seems to have been drawn from both the driver’s and the pedestrian’s perspective, taking into account  their various perceptions  of the city and the different uses both make of it. But alongside this proposal for delicate urban surgery in certain places, on seeing the other drawings now, I can understand that the significance of the project is far greater. It affects the entire traffic system. And, curiously, what makes it possible for the connection with the centre to be more fluid is the decision to duplicate El Coso, which has always been a gap between the historic centre and the Ensanche. Having only previously seen the plan view, I had not understood that this drawing was for work that would have had such a huge impact on Zaragoza, although in actual fact it is all drawn here.

RM. You can even see the exits  of car parks under the squares. Actually, this drawing, which seems to be the most representative, which is the one that has been published the most, is a drawing for visual consumption.  Its interest lies in the value of the drawing as a design tool. But the other drawings are more important to understand the project, which is very ambitious.

That low building you see there, standing in El Coso, served as a link rather than as a background for the corridor, and provided the extension of Paseo de la Independencia towards Plaza del Pilar. Some buildings, not many, were also demolished to create a route where, based on what already existed, other more important work was to take place, which proved there was a certain urban structure. With smaller streets we wanted to provide a solution to the small insert which consisted of changing  scale. For example, we tried to make the Plaza del Pilar interesting, clearly differentiating the various parts of the square, fragmenting it. We isolated the public space of the City Hall from the Basilica space, defining a sealed off forecourt in front of it,  like an open narthex, enabling the square in front of the City Hall to remain independent. The same thing happened with the Plaza de La Seo. We broke up the unity of this continuous square, which is what we have today.

It was a design we produced with great care. It contained an important reflection on the city. It was not a design we rolled out in a hurry to respond to a call for proposals.  It is also a design  I developed  with  Manuel Solà, who always thought that if a job was worth doing, it was worth doing well.

CD. On studying these drawings carefully, we can recognise a type of education resulting in very different intentions  to  those  of  other  proposals  put  forward  by urban architects who had trained in the US and returned to Spain with very different ideas. I’m referring to Francisco Longoria, for example, who also entered a proposal and who was awarded first place. This design aimed to defend the unity of the urban centre and echoed the guidelines set out by the General Plan of Zaragoza, which tried to avoid
‘the speculative aspiration of opening up a new Gran Vía, extension of the Paseo de la Independencia to the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar’.

RM. Yes, very different.  Although  it  was already  obvious that it was not possible to realise the design which came first. Ours was ambitious, although at first sight it may have seemed simple. Looking back on it now, you understand that connecting this major street, the Paseo de la Independencia, with the historic quarter, was valuable, that this wedge entering the old city with a route that thinned it out, respecting and regenerating the already existing structures, was beneficial for the city. If some of what is proposed here had been built, things would  have been very different  for Zaragoza. Very different in the sense that the solution there is now creates an unfortunate curtain hiding the old city. It is a solution that will find it hard to be successful. It is a very different strategy to ours, which arose from recognising a much smaller scale, the scale of El Coso. We wanted to lengthen the Paseo de la Independencia to Plaza del Pilar, making this pedestrian backbone extend as a more pleasant footpath between Alfonso  I and Jaime I. Once this problem had been solved, focus shifted  on cleaning  up the area, placing  emphasis on the small existing  squares which could  be brought to life. This alternative,  involving  the emergence of an almost imperceptible pedestrian corridor crossing the quarter from one side to the other along a route leading to Plaza del Pilar, worked very well. We thought it was an interesting design.

CD. The fact is that this plan view, which you have just so aptly described as for ‘visual consumption’  has been drawn with such surprisingly minute detail. You could almost look at it with a magnifying glass. It contains many designs in one. Everything has been thought through. Almost everything has a solution.

RM. The scale it is drawn to is one that enables you to reflect on issues of a relatively minor scale. In actual fact, you are able to describe  all the designs there are here. Seeing this, anyone can imagine how the Plaza de la Seo might have been redeveloped, so that La Seo [Cathedral] and La Lonja [former market building,  now an exhibition  hall] are given more prominence.  I can imagine this square here quite well, with these differences in level, with these ramps, yet with this lower building. For example, how do you surround a cathedral with railings? How can you cut such an uncertain space so that it highlights the value of the Basilica as a building, La Seo, La Lonja, San Juan de los Panetes? How do you establish spaces and relationships between volumes  so that whilst highlighting the buildings’ value they do not lose their meaning in a more combined and overall reading of the whole? All this is what the design was aiming at.

CD. Since we are talking about projects in historic centres, and this first edition of the ZARCH journal concerns ‘The traces of place’, perhaps it would be a good idea to briefly comment on the Udine project. At the moment, the Udine press is reporting that there is some controversy concerning the project, which the Rizzani de Eccher group has commissioned you with, to construct a residential building where the UPIM department store is currently located. I have read the opinions of architects in the press who regret that you have had to change and adapt your initial design to comply with municipal regulations. One gets the impression that in Italy—as also in Spain—the strict rules imposed to protect the historic centres of cities are harmful. Good architecture is a consequence of working with good judgement and common sense. It cannot be guaranteed by imposing a series of restrictions. What do you think about this?

RM. Yes, some controversy has appeared in Messaggero Veneto. Well, some opinions have been published about the project. Our first design was somewhat less restricted. We wanted to control the sizes of the housing components to allow for more connectivity in thoroughfares from the City Hall to the Cathedral. We realised that this did not comply with the Regulatory  Plan rules for the centre, and so we developed a more conventional building, so to speak, because the previous one was unusual because of its scale. It proposed isolated components that were more domestic in style. Something  like the residential towers in Zaragoza. The first design we came up with had a small-scale solution. We tried to minimise a lot, to cut up volumes. But the components we were proposing, as they were residential units, did not comply with the minimum distances dictated by the Plan, if they were seen as independent buildings and not as parts of a single building. It was a design we laboured over a great deal, and its distinctive aspect was its small scale. Meanwhile this other building we have proposed is now being inserted in the city as an old palazzo with an open space behind. Now this palazzo complies urbanistically with everything the Plan says.

CD. In the first design, the housing components were grouped towards Via Savorgnana and the cathedral, thus considerably thinning out the block towards the City Hall square. A component  with a different character was left isolated, I imagine to bear witness to current commercial use, which consolidated the Via Cavour corner.

RM. Our first proposal placed a lot of emphasis on that corner, following the instructions of the municipal architects of Udine, who had insisted on this. Therefore, that commercial building which consolidated the splay remained, more noticeable towards the square, and these three other housing components were set back, not exactly as it is in Zaragoza, but something  similar. We created a lot of mock-ups, we worked really hard. The photo of the model clearly shows what our strategy was.

The new proposal improves on the previous one. Overlooking the street it is enclosed volume-wise, and at the back there are some more open courtyards, creating a quiet area for all those gardens with that ‘U’ shape opening onto the Duomo [cathedral]. On the ground floor of the second design, you can see how the oblique alignment to extend Via Antonio Belloni results in a diagonal thoroughfare in the building, which would help to connect the Piazza del Duomo with Via Cavour. And this view of the ground floor of the building as being extremely fluid is what has also led to a second thoroughfare from the gardens of Palazzo Morpurgo to Via Savorgnana.  This other building which  leaves the Duomo more isolated  is later. It dates from the fifties.

CD. In the article you wrote for publication  in the Italian press you reminded us of the important debate on what Rogers  termed   ‘preesistenze  ambientali’   [surrounding preexistences] as an argument to emphasise the delicate disciplinary issues which come into play when an architect has to intervene in historic centres such as Udine’s. In this respect, we can also recognise in the theoretical reflections you have developed by exercising your profession— referring to the title of the Barrié Foundation exhibition—an obvious Italian-influenced attitude, although, in my opinion, what started out as an affinity with the Italian architectural culture of the fifties and sixties has attained a far more consistent level in your designs, more timeless that the Italian proposals of those years. For instance, I am thinking about the Prado Museum extension project, a perfect example of a design arising from the desire to integrate‘preesistenze ambientali’ in it, and to reactivate them, more than any of Rogers’ own designs, which always ended up being more likely to become dated.

RM. Yes, the Prado design does indeed go further. It is true that the debate was very intense in Italy, but then it had little impact on architecture. Few projects which put these ideas into practice were realised. There are not so many examples of projects in historic centres because nearly all of them were blocked. But the Udine case is different.  Here it is about replacement. There is a very different possibility of reversibility. Intervening where everything has value, where transformation makes no sense because the aim is to keep what is already there, is one thing. But this case, in which reversibility is a key factor, is quite another. The aim is to get rid of a building no one likes, a very clumsy building dating from 1961, which was built on a previous one that was better. I don’t think I’m expressing an openly pejorative critical opinion on the UPIM building if I state that, built amidst ongoing discussions of how to go forward in historic centres, it was erected without adhering to such essential considerations as respect for scale, for volumes, the layout defining the urban setting, the choice of materials. So, as you can see, we are faced with a paradox of speaking about a building that did not display a special desire to be integrated in the urban setting. Now, working again on such a characteristic site in the historic centre of Udine would prove that reversibility in a city’s urban design is possible, and that urban errors committed in the past can be rectified if you have the courage to do so and circumstances permit, as on this occasion, in which the Eccher group decided to get rid of the UPIM building and construct another one.

But I still do not know if the project will end up going ahead. In our favour is the fact that our client is a local respected and relatively prosperous company. They have bought the UPIM department store and they have to construct a new building. They cannot risk doing it badly. They will try to do the best they can, as long as they cover their income expectations. But I don’t know what the outcome of all this will be. We have been working for two full years on this design, It is a good proposal. It is not a design that aims to stand out. Quite the opposite in fact. The aim is to discreetly replace what is there, which no one likes, with something that will fit better. I would like to do this Udine project because I think it will greatly improve  the current situation.  I think that, although it does not propose a radical change in the existing buildings, it will have enough of an impact on the urban layout to make it more fluid. It would really help. It would improve the current situation.

CD. I don’t know Udine, but it must be an interesting city, as are the majority of Italian cities, so history has favoured it and its small scale.

RM. Today Udine is a small industrial city. A city with 100,000 inhabitants, and quite prosperous. It was a relatively important city in the Republic of Venice, with a castle, noblemen. It even has a palace by Palladio. After World War II it evolved into a city that is quite prosperous in industrial and financial terms. But it is not Mantua, for example, which is a much richer city as far as monuments and history are concerned. I also think that Udine is a city with less financial spirit than Mantua, and much less than Verona. It might be similar to Vicenza, although Vicenza has everything by Palladio in its favour, which is what transforms it. Or Pordenone...

It is a very attractive place, a beautiful city. There is a Venetian square. There is the Castello, a very important building which dominates the entire city. Of course there is a market, the typical  loggia,  similar to the ones in  Padua and Vicenza. Added to all this is the City Hall, built by D’Aronco, one of the most representative Italian architects of Liberty, although the building is not very Liberty in style. Instead it is classic, with that Italian classicism that is so different to the French, a monument that seeks to fit into the already consolidated historic centre. The City Hall building is, as you can see, very definitive. It dates from the beginning of the 20th century, and it is very powerful, extremely powerful, but its arcade has not been inserted very well. For our current taste, this passageway is not very successful either, because it interrupts a street that is very pretty, full of arcades, where the spontaneous city market took place. However, the arcade the City Hall introduces has changed it. It is actually more effective to see it drawn in plan than in real life. Then there is the Piazza della Libertà,  Via Cavour, which ends at the City Hall. There is a new part, dating from the thirties, and another from the fifties. And Udine also has a Duomo. It is a lovely Duomo. The plan view drawing also shows the back of the palaces, which have some garden space.

Lastly, there is the UPIM, the building we have to work on. The new building we propose adapts to the city’s street layout, fully respects  the alignments  on Via Cavour and Via Savorgnana and extends Via Antonio Belloni, the one you see there, improving the view of the City Hall tower from Piazza del Duomo.

CD. In my opinion, one of the most delicate issues the design addresses is the way in which this new building, for a residential scheme, and which, therefore, is no longer a public building, does not, however, forgo dignity as it emerges in the urban setting, and neither does it lose the discretion a residential building needs. In the specifications you explain that you have tried to avoid the emergence of an element as domestic as balconies, which would announce individual use in the façade, and you have replaced them by terraces embedded in the building’s volume, protected by traditional shutters. This is a very good solution to the problem and helps the building to marry with the type of façades found in Udine houses.

RM. We also tried something  like that in Ávila. The building in Ávila, despite being a hotel, which is always more public than a residential building, posed a problem because housing was not recognised in the square, since they appeared with a more regular or generic condition, or whatever you want to call it. In this Udine project,  the openings, framed with stone and embedded in that smooth plane of rendered façade, must not be far removed from those found in Via Cavour, or in Via Savorgnana.  The same happens with the render colour. It goes without saying that it should be close to the colours found in this urban environment. Furthermore, the current design is strictly in line with what has been established  in the General Udine Plan as far as volume is concerned, i.e. it must not exceed level 22.75 defined by the cornice of Palazzo D’Aronco, since the level of the terrace parapet on the topmost floor is 18.55. However, this desire to harmonise with the public condition in the centre of the city, which manifests itself in the building façades, whether above Via Cavour, Via Savorgnana  and Via Antonio  Belloni, transforms into something less restrictive and more random above the gardens of Palazzo Morpurgo, which opens onto the open spaces around Piazza del Duomo There the new building admits its domestic condition and becomes softer by using a continuous enclosure of shutters providing a much more pleasant backdrop to the gardens I mentioned  than the current UPIM walls.

CD. Do you think the city of Udine is going to be more accepting of this second version?

RM. I understand that people may like this better. The new proposal is more conservative. And people tend to be conservative. Because the previous proposal aimed to balance itself out with the garden at the back of the site breaking up the scale, fragmenting the building volumes, making the passageways from the Comune square to the Duomo square more fluid. But I don’t think people  really understand that. Now a solution  has been proposed with  the same floor area but with a more enclosed volume, which respects the alignments with a smoother façade, such as the ones we see in traditional  quarters.  I expect this project has that more traditional character as far as its shape is concerned. These three open levels can be seen in the model. And that corner, whose solution, instead of a showy architectural artifice, is an empty space, relies on commercial activity to provide it with interest. There is a very large passageway which is included in the streets and facilitates fluidity.

In actual fact we are at the mercy of the superintendency. If they view it positively,  if they decide that the proposal is a good one, the City Council would probably not make any objections, because it is actually quite in favour of the design. Both will have the last word, but the City Council is not going to do anything without the superintendency’s consent.

Architecturally, the design would show that it has satisfactorily taken on board efforts during the second half of the 20th century to establish criteria for building  in historic  centres. Everything we have said about how to work in historic quarters has not led—nor should it, nor is it possible—to  a clearly defined body of doctrine. However, these reflections have resulted in a wealth of considerations, and a series of criteria and ideas have been favoured, so much so that in the end there have not been enough occasions to put them into practice.  Conservation is one thing, and another quite different is working in a context in which, due to specific circumstances—ruin   or   deterioration—we   need  to   act without damaging the identity of the place, without assaulting what people believe that place stands for. However, on the other hand, we also have to make use of and work with construction resources that we cannot so easily do without. It isn’t an iconographic problem. We need to find a way to act that benefits a more positive use of historic centres.

There is a knock on the door and three people burst in carrying a mock-up  which is around 2 x 2 m, breaking the silence that usually reigns in the studio. It is for the replacement of one of Bankinter’s roofs. The large model is supported by a table always full of books, which takes up the cylindrical space of the meeting room, whose shape is one of the distinctive characteristics of the Rationalist quarter of El Viso in Madrid. Rafael Moneo, who has answered several phone calls throughout our conversation and responded to queries made by his colleagues without ever losing the thread of our discussion, is pensive and absent for the first time, looking at the model which has violently transformed his work space. Our theoretical reflection on conservation and intervention in the historic centres of cities has been interrupted by the obligations abruptly required by his profession. I could never have imagined a more fitting way to end this conversation.

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