Pritzker prize-laureate Rafael Moneo on Hong Kong housing

For someone whose childhood passion was not in architecture, Rafael Moneo, the one and only Spanish Pritzker prize-laureate, has had a reverberating impact on urban public spaces.

Born in Tudela, a small town in Spain, the young Moneo, whose father was an industrial engineer, was more drawn to philosophy and painting; he only turned to architecture in the name of his dad’s interest in architecture and headed to Madrid to study architecture at age 17.

It has proven to be a wise decision – for he has won all the top architecture awards – the Pritzker Prize in 1996, Royal Gold Medal in 2003 and the Princess of Asturias Awards for the Arts in 2012 – and has become a world-acclaimed master both academically and professionally.

Over the past two decades, the Spaniard has created some of the most acknowledged developments in his native country, including the National Museum of Roman Art, Bankinter, Murcia Town Hall, Kursaal Palace, Valladolid Science Museum and Museum University of Navarra, among at least seven other projects overseas, and counting.

Last year saw the then 79-year-old architect unveil his first condo tower design at the north end of Miami.

Entering one of his buildings is like entering a heady maze. You climb, you choose, you are lost, you will find, you will be surprised, you will explore and, of what it’s all about, you will experience.

His design is like an illusion of time and space where you can’t help, but plunge into a world of contemporary artefact where its antecedent is remembered.

The National Museum of Roman Art, as an example, stands as a tribute to Roman civilisation underlined by soaring arcades of arch (a symbol of Roman glory) built with elongated red brick, injecting this ancient city of the Roman age with a modern appearance while restoring the historicity of the Empire.

This is what makes a typical Moneo building – a contemporary expression and an embodiment of time and place of a building; a design principle that is visually told in a space and easily felt by visitors in his work.

Often the sense of space and time is considered obsolete to modern architecture amid the high-rise boom and statement-building obsession.

But this is exactly his stock in trade. He highly values the relationship between visitors and architecture, as he regards each building as a substantive creation full of seemingly random paths, staircases and rooms as narratives that are wrapped in a seemingly standardised building that is always more than meets the eye.

And like most meetings, mine with Moneo happened at a particular place, but a not so perfect time. I catch him at an exhibition of his life-long work hosted by a design institution in town. While I honestly wished I had met him earlier, it doesn’t change the fact he is an architecture legend.

I wish I’d met him just 10 years earlier, perhaps, when he was in better shape with more strength to talk to the press; because today’s Moneo, at age 80 (79 when I met him last month), is visibly older with a face chastened by years, looking extremely weary and gaunt; he has to cut short the interview, he says, because of travel fatigue.

Despite physical boundaries, here he is, mustering every ounce of his remaining energy to share his vision with us in Hong Kong, a city where he found a distinct divergence between the building patterns in Hong Kong and his principle to value nature.

“From time to time you see tall buildings spring up next to mountains, facing them or backing them, but I’m not so sure if they have to be this way, as the judgment should happen between the walls and nature,” he says.

“It is quite wonderful to be surrounded by green as it makes the landscape more pleasant, but it doesn’t mean you should artificially add more plants to the buildings. If you really love green, you should be respectful to it and it’s the way for a green landscape to become more natural.

“Finding the right dimension and right materials for a building is more important to creating a more living atmosphere than just adding green to it.”

This is one spot-on observation for a foreign architect who never designed for Asia; though it’s not hard to discover one sad fact of living in Hong Kong is that the closest to nature you can get is the Victoria Harbour or mountain views from the windows.

You would know this by just taking a short stroll on the streets and sidewalks in the city that are most of the time darkened by soaring towers. Living close to nature appears to be the privilege for only the rich, who can afford to live on The Peak or Repulse Bay; in central districts, the race to the clouds will only escalate.

“I wonder if having more tall buildings is the rightful way to solving the housing problems in Hong Kong in the future,” he says sceptically.

“The lack of land in Hong Kong forces buildings to go up. But I doubt if this is the most pleasurable way of infrastructures. I’d like to see something different, something more respectful to nature. I like to see more buildings sharing the life of the city itself.”

This mindset is best reflected in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, a project he completed in downtown Los Angeles in 2002.

The church, clothed in adobe with laconic geometric shapes, blends harmoniously with its surroundings, yet stands out majestically and mystically on West Temple Street as a lively expression of the 21st century Catholic spirit.

The architect makes sure visitors to the cathedral travel through a spiritual journey from the secular to the sacred, formed by meticulous floor plans step by step – from the lower plaza to a grand staircase, which leads to the upper plaza directing to a great monumental bronze gate by sculptor Robert Graham.

Inside the cathedral you can find a large use of alabaster as a substitute for stained glass windows that illuminates the interior softly, installing a thoughtful calm and a sense of solemness in the space.

The structure is a replacement of the Cathedral of Saint Vibiana, which was severely damaged by a devastating earthquake in 1994.

“I believe the city is built mostly by residents, therefore, to have the fortune of getting jobs meant for a large portion of the public is one of the greatest jobs that you can get as an architect,” Moneo says with joy.

“As an architect, you should be ready to do these kinds of jobs when the opportunities come to your hand.”

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