Moneo in Belgium | icon 001 | April 2003

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photo: Roland Halbe photo: Roland Halbe photo: Roland Halbe
words Kieran Long

Rafael Moneo is, with characteristic modesty, explaining how he felt on adding the Royal Gold Medal to the haul of awards he has received in his distinguished career. "I am tremendously honoured and quite aware of what it means for the British community to win this award," he says, in his eloquent but heavily accented English.

The ambiguity of his words speaks volumes. It is indeed British architecture's highest honour, but it is also important for the British architectural community that an architect such as Moneo has won the prize. Archigram's victory the year before lauded an architecture residing more in the world of theory than construction. The Spaniard's win is a return to appreciating a modest and beautiful architecture that values plan, section, craft and building.

Moneo is at the peak of his career. The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles has just been completed, and prestigious work in his homeland is on site, including the refurbishment of the Prado Museum in Madrid. It is a strange time to be taking stock of his career, which is certainly not over yet. "It is always that prizes make you think about where you are," he says. "Thoughts about time and life. But as you can imagine, I am still working with the same eagerness." He is a paradox, with a very strong belief in the need to avoid using an identifiable style, while still admiring the work of architects from Alvaro Siza to Frank Gehry, Herzog & de Meuron to Rem Koolhaas and Peter Eisenman.

In a recent lecture at the Architectural Association in London, Moneo described the competition process for the cathedral, in which he competed against Gehry, Morphosis and Santiago Calatrava. It became clear that his modesty - along with the confidence he had to take tough decisions about a whole block of the city of Los Angeles - helped him win the competition.

Moneo's latest building to be completed is another immensely assured project on a previously incoherent site, but it has a very different aesthetic to the sand-coloured, load-bearing concrete of the cathedral and other recent buildings. The Arenberg Library at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium comprises a series of additions to a ruined Celestine convent, creating a new science library, reading rooms, a computer room, seminar room, café and bookshop.

Leuven University, founded in 1425, is one of the oldest in Europe, and is now the largest in Belgium. The exact science buildings - incorporating mathematics, physics, chemistry, architecture and engineering - are situated in the south of the city on the so-called Arenberg campus, on the site of a 16th-century castle and its grounds. This 17th-century convent belonged to the castle, but had existed in an almost derelict state since its church was demolished in 1816. The decision to centralise the libraries of the exact sciences was used as an opportunity to restore and augment these existing buildings.

The university ran a competition in 1997, won by Moneo, who decided not to mimic the form of the church that had stood by the convent 200 years ago, but to create a building that in its form and massing was sympathetic to the remaining three sides of the convent. His proposal formed a fourth side to the cloister with a two-storey building, and created a long, low annex, with one floor underground on the east side of the site.

Moneo says that the key decisions about the building were made in plan. "Although there are moments when the section is important, such as getting the light into the basement, this building is all about exploiting all the potential of the plan, which is not always so common on an addition." The building preserves the spectacular vaulted ambulatory around the cloister, and conceives of the cloister as the core of a complex and as an outdoor reading room. The cloister is overlooked by the general reading room to the east and the curving glass of the white render entrance block to the south. The curves of this building are reminiscent of Mendelsohn, but with overlapping sinuous lines rather than a single render and glass façade.

The building makes its gestural moves in plan, too, and Moneo's understanding of the existing complex is profound. One of his key ideas is that the cloister is not an orthogonal square with one side missing, but a concave space that can be augmented by a convex form. He says: "We thought of the cloister as a complex and subtle reading-room space. In the cloister itself the convex shape is very powerful." He admits cheerfully that the white render and ribbon windows are reminiscent of modernism from the 1930s, and says he is using this language deliberately: "The white clean render is like Thirties architecture; it takes some of the optimism of this architecture and puts it in a rather decaying ruin. It is a way of enhancing the ruined architecture while being careful with scale."

The counterpoint to the exuberant white render elements is the exterior of the large low building housing the open stacks. This building, a wedge in plan, is clad in red render, complementing the pale brick of the existing building. It is expressed as a separate element to the old building, but nestles up to it. The red façade also forms a coherent barrier to De Croylaan Road to the east, linking with an existing brick wall. This hermetic barrier is permeated by one gateway, which allows views from the street of the white reception façade. Forming a new edge to the road was important to both architect and client, as the historic complex had been cut off from the existing street pattern of Leuven. Now a deep but rich building complex sits on the east of the block, and a landscaped area to the west will form a public space. There is also ample potential for extension to the north, and to retain the cloister's place as the core of the parti.

The building housing the open stacks is lit through triangular skylights on the roof, and the theme of high-level natural lighting is continued throughout, with oculus-like windows lighting the main reading room from above. The deep reveals allow shafts of light to hit the timber floor, giving readers a sense of time passing, even though they are denied views to the exterior.

This project forms a coherent city block from a previously stranded relic in the fabric of the city. It also reveals by turns a series of courtyards and interstitial spaces, with the pearl of the rendered reception block forming the visual focus. As always with Moneo, this is a building that is multi-faceted, and possibly more relaxed than the LA cathedral - another entry in Moneo's increasingly authoritative portfolio.

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