Spanish Architect Vaults to the Top

Jos Rafael Moneo of Madrid wins the Pritzker Prize for his visionary approach and respect for the past

Jose Rafael Moneo was named today as the first Spanish architect to win his profession's highest award, the Pritzker Architectural Prize for 1996.

Moneo, along with his family, will travel from his home in Madrid to Los Angeles to receive the prestigious honor. Jay Pritzker, president of the Hyatt Foundation and originator of the prize, announced that the ceremony will be on June 12 in Los Angeles, on the construction site of the Getty Center. The museum complex is being built by another Pritzker laureate, Richard Meier.

"It's an honor for me and my country," Moneo said when we met in Los Angeles. He was in California briefly, since he is a contender to rebuild the historical St. Vibiana's Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles.

Moneo's work covers a tremendous range, from the National Museum of Roman Art in Mrida, Spain, which is built over archaeological excavations, to the Museums of Modern Art and Architecture in Stockholm.

Other commissions in Spain include: the innovative Atocha railway station in Madrid, with its canopied parking areas; the San Pablo Airport in Seville, where the space, defined by vaults, acts as a threshold to the sky; the Diagonal Building in Barcelona, designed with Manuel de Sola-Morales; and remodeling the Villahermosa palace in Madrid to house the renowned Thyssen-Bornemisza art collection.

Moneo first came to New York in 1976, as a visiting fellow at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, and to teach at Cooper Union School of Architecture.

"The United States has influenced my life," he says. "For me and my family, New York City was profound, the libraries, expositions, conferences, concerts.

"I learned to be sensitive to different nuances that make each building different. I wanted to be respectful and careful of the surroundings, to become a lover of the different nature of materials," he says. "I wanted my buildings to participate, to share, to be incorporated into the world of culture. Ultimately, my buildings must serve, be useful...."

A few years later, Moneo, his wife, and three daughters moved from New York to Cambridge, Mass., when he became chairman of the department of architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

"That was an exciting time," he recalls of his tenure from 1984 to 1990. "I received the commission to quadruple the capacity of the Atocha railway station at the same time I started teaching at Harvard. I flew to Spain every weekend to supervise the project. I really wanted to build in the US, and my initial project came while I was still at Harvard. It was the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College" in Wellesley, Mass.

Currently, Moneo is working on the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, plus projects in Germany and Spain. The award winner still has ties to Harvard. "Each spring, I teach there, but return to Europe every two weeks to oversee my building projects. Much of my life is spent in a plane."

Slender, soft-spoken, and still "in love" with architecture, Moneo learned of the Pritzker honor at 8 a.m. while having breakfast at the Faculty Club at Harvard. "I was called to the phone, and it was Bill Lacey [secretary of the Pritzker Jury]. He told me I was the 16th architect to receive the Pritzker Prize ... that it would not be announced until April 29, and that I must keep it a secret.

"I was surprised as well as delighted," Moneo says, "but not too excited to say 'I must tell my wife, we have no secrets, and also a few members of my staff.' I returned to breakfast and still do not remember what I ate. I only know I didn't mention the news."

Moneo was born in Tudela, Navarra, Spain. "My father was a structural engineer," he explains, "but he had a deep interest in architecture. When I was a schoolboy I was interested in philosophy and painting, but when it came time to attend the university, my father helped me decide to be an architect.

"The more I studied the more I felt this was what I was meant to be." While Moneo was still a student at the Madrid University of Architecture, he worked for Francisco Javier Saenz de Oiza. "He inspired me with a great love and enthusiasm for the work," he says.

"After graduation, I worked for Jorn Utzon, who was designing the Sydney Opera House in Australia. I learned much from him while in his office in Hellebaeck, Denmark."

Moneo speaks of the sense of isolation during Francisco Franco's dictatorship (1939 to 1975). "There had been so much seclusion during the Franco regime that many thought we young students were unaware of what was being built in the rest of the world.

"People of my generation, who are now between 50 and 60, were eager to learn what was happening in foreign countries. Because of our interest and effort we were quite well informed."

Then two things happened that changed Moneo's life. "First," he says, smiling, "I met my wife. Second, I won the contest to have one of the architect spaces at the Academy of Spain in Rome, Italy," a high honor for such a young man.

Moneo married Belen Feduchi, whose father was architect Luis Feduchi. She shared his love of design. "We combined a honeymoon with our trip to Rome. We were there two years, and it made an imprint on my life and design.

"Until then, only modern architecture concerned me. In Rome, I learned the lessons of the past, the legacy of history, and something that could be considered a continuing lesson for architecture. It opened my eyes to this history. Cities deserve to be preserved.

"For one year, we never went away from the city, no Vienna, no Switzerland. We had no car, so we walked all over Rome. I can still remember the corners, streets, plazas, monuments as if it was yesterday."

When they returned to Madrid in 1965, they established a small house-studio, and Moneo received his first important commission to design a factory in Zaragoza, Spain. The next four years, Moneo taught at the Madrid University School of Architecture. He joined a group of young architects in meetings they called "little congresses." Describing these gatherings, Moneo says, "A new phase of architectural life in Spain was initiated."

Today, Moneo has a thriving office in Madrid with 20 young architects working for him and commissions around the world.

His three daughters are following in his artistic footsteps. The oldest, Belen, is an architect and worked for her father on the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm. His second daughter, Teresa, graduated from Barnard College in New York and works in the film industry. The youngest, Clara Matilde, is studying architecture.

Moneo wants to combine the best of yesterday with a thrust toward tomorrow. "I don't know any other profession that allows one to have such a large view, such expanded interests, and be involved in so many different issues," he says.

"The fact that we are related with form forces us to keep our eyes open to form. My father was right. I feel being an architect is one of the best ways to be in this world."

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