Rafael Moneo | icon 009 | January 2004

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photo: Duccio Malagamba photo: Duccio Malagamba Photo: Duccio Malagamba

words Kieran Long and Marcus Fairs

Rafael Moneo has just completed a hospital in Madrid which is a manifestation of his ideas on making legible cities. We look at this project and talk exclusively to last year's RIBA Gold Medal winner about the importance of consistency, history and David Beckham.

Rafael Moneo's new children's and maternity hospital in Madrid is a starkly urban building, mixing the architect's enthusiasm for the comprehensible dimensions of the city block with his desire for differentiated human experience within large-scale pieces of infrastructural building. At a time of mounting concern over the quality of hospital design in the UK, the building is a timely reminder of how far ahead the Spanish are when it comes to public architecture.

The 50,000sq m, nine-storey building accommodates two new hospitals, and refurbishes and extends the Gregorio Marañon hospital complex. It includes nine delivery rooms, 11 operating theatres and 313 beds. Its form reinterprets and integrates the three surrounding different block types of the city and makes a coherent whole of intersecting volumes and boxes.

The two hospitals, one for maternity and one for children, have completely separate entrances and circulation areas, but share some service areas. The entrance to the maternity hospital is on Calle O'Donnell, where a hospital has stood since 1837, and forms a lantern-like steel and glass section of façade, behind which is the low reception area and upper-floor waiting rooms, which are bathed in light. Moneo says that this glass section is intended to "dissolve the image of the people within in reflections, but [to] maintain the light intact".

The plan internally is arranged around a series of eight courtyards, which allow the complex to integrate now-invisible existing buildings, and the new construction. This also allows the wards and the nurses' rooms to always face one of these quadrangles, creating a powerfully inward-looking environment with excellent natural light. The decision behind this introspection was based on a desire for a protective environment with its back turned to the tough urban surroundings.

The detailing of the rooms and wards are designed, according to the architect, to offer "isolation, tranquility and domestic character", and to this end, maple window frames with Majorca shutters are used, distancing the rooms from the clinical image of most hospitals.

On the more hermetic circumference of the building, Moneo has placed the support functions, and has allowed the plan to remain flexible enough to allow access from all sides of the building. The glass and steel faade sits above a plinth clad in cast aluminium, which prevents pedestrians from getting too close to the glass.

The building steps down across the site, and the second and third floors underground are dedicated to staff changing rooms, machinery and storage. The second floor contains most of the general functions of the hospital, with a surgical block, intensive-care units and delivery rooms, and acts as a link between the out-patients' and in-patients' areas. In-patients take the three levels above this.

Internal partitions are kept as flexible as possible, using simple plasterboard that can easily accommodate services. Material quality is retained for the floor surfaces, including marble on corridor floors and skirting, with ceramic tiles in areas subject to humidity and coloured linoleum in wards.

In his recent lecture in London on receiving the RIBA Royal Gold Medal, Moneo said: "Hospitals and big infrastructure buildings are examples of architecture where the meaning of the old Vitruvian Ôutilitas' still pertains. I rejoice that such a category is still entrusted by society to architects. The complexity of the programme [of the hospital] is present in its architecture, with its system of courtyards that produces a porous plan, ready to receive disparate uses. The courtyards also help to establish a clear grid of movement - a very important feature in buildings of this nature."

icon was privileged to be granted an exclusive interview with Moneo while he was in London late last year to receive the RIBA's Royal Gold Medal. In the present climate of gratuitous form-making, Moneo's work is refreshingly modest and grounded in history. Here he reflects on his long career and expresses his belief that cities are more important than individual buildings.

What are your views on the current architectural scene?
Architecture has changed. Now it remains exclusively in the hands of individuals. If you compare the present situation with the 1920s, there were a lot of people then looking for sharing a common language, or getting a new idea of how people should live in neighbourhoods. But instead of that, every well-known architect nowadays wants to be completely different from the other. But I would say that those individual attempts to produce architecture very rarely compete with the beauty, the consistency of the cities where architects are working. The city is a far more powerful entity than buildings that want to claim novelty, and it seems to me that the consistency of the city should be valued more. Anyway, in architecture, true novelty is very difficult. You can count with the fingers of two hands those moments when a building has truly broken new ground. Think about domes. The true dome is the one in Florence. The hundreds of thousands of domes throughout architectural history are nothing compared with this powerful innovation that happened in Florence. The others are just nuances. Or if you take the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, you have there a starting point for so many buildings. You ask me what I think about this trend of creating single icons; these icons happen very rarely in the history of architecture. But there are many buildings of tremendous subtlety and interest that do not compete madly for your attention. I think very good architecture happens to be this way.

What do you think of London as a city?
The London that I liked is the London of before. I am not too fond of these new districts like Canary Wharf and the new development beside St Paul's Cathedral [Paternoster Square], which to me are simply about creating floorspace. There is no sense of a movement of architecture in England now like there was during the Sixties with Archigram; everyone wants to do their own thing, to be different. There is no attempt at architects coming together to try to work for society, to give things to the people rather than simply create monuments to the self and to strive for sensation. There is this feeling that architects want to be artists. People speak a lot about interdisciplinarity. A lot of recent architectural dialogue calls for things to be taken from French philosophers or whatever, or the starting point for architecture comes from translating what has been read in physics or music or whatever. I like to see architects being influenced by the fields around them, by the culture around them, but I would still insist on trying to centre intellectual research in architecture on a more disciplinary feel. I would like to insist that those intellectual reflections are focused on architecture itself. A building isn't a piece of music. The critical tools and instruments to judge buildings should come from architecture itself. That doesn't mean we should ignore culture as a whole but the critical judgement should happen on more specific grounds.

The jury of this year's Mies van der Rohe Award made the point that Spanish architects continue to dominate the European scene. Why is this?
Yes, there are dozens of very good young architects in Spain today. There are perhaps 40 strong practices, such as Abalos & Herreros, Mansilla & TuñonÉ The reason people often give for the strength of Spanish architecture is that the change from fascism to democracy following the death of Franco in 1975 meant that Spain was eager to create public institutions and cities that reflected the new freedom. This gave new opportunities to architects, and it created a sense of community and purpose among architects. Spain was divided into 17 autonomous regions such as Catalonia, Andalucia and the Basque Country, and each regional government wants to build schools, hospitals, museums, parks and so on that reflect their pride in the region and their civic values. For me a key project was the City Hall in Logrono [capital of Spain's La Rioja province]. It was one of my early projects; I was commissioned during the time of Franco but then when democracy started to flourish, I wanted to produce a building that reflected this. I wanted to create a place for people, that was part of the city, that people could pass freely through, and which provided a new public square for the city. Spain is still an emerging country, and paradoxically the more advanced a society and the more developed a country, the more difficult it is to do good architecture. I think architecture is still embedded in something to do with craftsmanship, and you do not find the building industry so much more advanced in developed countries like the United States. That puts the problems of architects more in the territory of the production of the building - insurance, codes, regulation and so on. Developed countries are so wedded to budgets, to codes and to standardisation that they end up with very stiff, rigid shapes that can only be shaken off with artificial effort. Countries, let's say Spain or Portugal, are able to take advantage of the middle ground they are in. Spain is evolving in such a way that we are getting closer to other European countries, but there is instilled in people there the wish and the will to do good architecture. I think these people will do their best to achieve this despite the difficulties of a stronger economy and a more regulated society.

You speak about the importance of cities as opposed to buildings; what are your views on the way in which cities are changing?
One thing that is happening all over the world is that housing has been neglected. You have the experience of your own approach to architecture after the Second World War, when England tried to come up with alternatives. I would like to see architecture today committed to re-evaluating housing, as something to give consistency to the expanding city. Another of the issues today that seems quite problematic is that we are neglecting planning and saying let's leave the market to establish how cities grow. That should be permitted only to a certain degree. Because despite the fact that we are claiming to be ecologists, cities are spreading all over the landscape. We need to discuss whether cities should be more compact, and economically inclusive. Today it seems one of the answers is this trend towards landscapable architecture, yet it is a way of mistreating and devastating the landscape that we say we want to save and respect. I would like architects to provide a model for enlarging cities that is not exclusively based on infrastructure but instead I would like them to fill up the ground and provide decent housing for people.

You are a very modest person, but what would you say your contribution to architecture has been?
I don't know... the good thing about my work is that it can be explained. I am able to give reasons for what I did. And probably that offers to others the hope that knowledge can be a way of entering into architecture. That I hope could be my contribution.

You live in Madrid; how is David Beckham getting on?
He is obviously a superstar but I think he is trying also to be a good team player at Real Madrid; to be working hard for the good of the club and not just for himself. And I think that is a good approach for a footballer and a good approach for an architect as well.

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