What is Rafael Moneo heralding?

It seems as though estrangement has become more than a personal issue. Considering the closure of national borders and our strained relations with the folk at home to the extent of contempt; we have come to realise that being a whole, being together is not going to get easier. Ironically, social distancing has become a requisite of wellbeing, which makes us think more about the question “How will we live together?” Lebanese scholar and architect Hashim Sarkis is expecting an answer from architects and, in particular, Golden Lion winner Rafael Moneo…

Seeking an answer to the question “How will we live together?”, the 17th Venice Biennial International Architecture Exhibition curated by Hashim Sarkis was postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic. Open to the public between 22 May and 21 November, the Biennial venues are the usual and much-missed Giardini and Arsenale… Featuring 112 participants from 46 countries, this edition of the event is showcasing the pavilions of Iraq, Uzbekistan and Grenade for the first time.

Sarkis uses the theme “How will we live together?” to ask architects one of the pressing questions of our times possibly in an attempt to make use of the inherent “divine” tendencies of architecture which can come across as somewhat arrogant. Maybe he believes that the social order-maintaining role architects have assumed over the centuries would do a much better job than politicians and their failed policies on the climate crisis, social injustice, and social division.

This expectation is evident in other areas of the Biennial as well. This year’s winner of the Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement Award is the 83-year-old Spanish architect, scholar and theoretician Rafael Moneo who was shortlisted for the award by Sarkis himself. Moneo’s arguments complement the Biennial’s message. Renowned for his projects that skilfully combine the old and the new, Moneo becomes a role model for the Biennial itself. The architect frequently employs traditional techniques and forms in his projects whose respect for the past herald empathy and tolerance. According to Moneo, the formula of living together is to establish stronger ties with the past, the place, the society and loved ones.

According to Sarkis, Moneo has contributed greatly to architectural theory with his work in historic locations. Also, a winner of the 1996 Pritzer Award, Moneo literally has a poetic talent in the discipline. Sarkis must have been spellbound by Moneo for the connections he establishes with the context. The architect makes tremendous analyses and brings a contemporary approach to historic sites. He is known to shape the building plan in line with the social, cultural and historic context of an area.

Some regard Moneo as the “heralder of the Renaissance of Spanish architecture”; and the sense of “estrangement” in his designs could be considered as a state of rebellion. Moneo reminds us that form is about functionality as it is an explicandum and criticises those who abuse technology’s impact on architecture for “ideological and personal reasons” on every platform possible. According to Moneo, architecture is also about being lasting.

The architect has an extensive and diverse portfolio. Some find it hard to provide a clear definition of Moneo’s poetic relation with location, light and form which makes him stand out from the rest. Moneo’s National Museum of Roman Art project in Spain is a wonderful example of these characteristics. The building could be defined as an elegant amalgamation of old and new, created by adapting the programme to the exhibition space with the choice of materials and the spacing of the arches, not forgetting the pertinence of the proportions to the period. Seen as the most important expansion project of the last 200 years, the Museo del Prado is another of the architect’s prominent works. The extension to the neo-classical style museum completed in 1785 is an indicator of Moneo’s light construct and understanding of innovation.

It has been announced that Sarkis is planning a small exhibition in the Book Pavilion that will feature a selection of the architect’s sketches and models. Rafael Moneo is expected to receive the Golden Lion Lifelong Achievement Award on May 22nd together with the special award commemorating Lina Bo Bardi.