A long list of geniuses have starred in contemporary architecture: names like Rem Koolhaas, Enric Miralles, Peter Eisenman take the stage every night, startling the audience with their brilliant, innovative architecture. However, the name Rafael Moneo echoes somewhere else. It’s as you step on the street that his name starts to ring; when you enter a classroom, even as you scroll through the pages of a history book, it’s then that Rafael Moneo’s work comes to life. Moneo’s work is an extension of the city’s existing fiber, a critical thinking repertoire that sews the urban tissue with strong ideologies and philosophical support.

It was not love at first sight: even in his early years, Rafael showed interest in the arts and philosophy field, but it was his father’s advice that pushed him into the arms of his beloved architecture. During his formative years, he studied at the Technical University of Madrid, receiving his degree in 1961. This date is anecdotic, for his professional career had started years before, working alongside Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza from 1956 to his graduation year, reassuring his love and desire for architecture.

His skills earned him a place alongside Jørn Utzon, moving to Hellebæk until 1962 when he was offered a scholarship in the Spanish Academy in Rome. His passion for the discipline led him down the education path, becoming an essential part of his profession. In 1965 he set foot in a classroom, debuting as an adjunct professor in the School of Architecture in Madrid until 1971 when he received the university Chair of Composition Elements in the Barcelona School of Architecture. 

His vision and philosophy earned him a position in prestigious Universities such as the Institute of Architectural and Urban Studies (NY), Cooper Union School Of Architecture (NY), Princeton, and the Architecture Department of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland). In 1985, he earned his place as the Dean of the Architectural Department at Harvard University. He devoted a significant part of his career to passing on his vast knowledge, which he continues to do nowadays, remaining one of his greatest pleasures.

Moneo’s sensitive and human approach towards History and context shapes his most vital architectural philosophies and ideologies, detectable in his work. 

1. “To put architecture in the chain of history, to be able to interpret and understand why we are where we are, is quite crucial.”

During his formative years at the Technical University of Madrid, Moneo found the most significant influence in his history professor, Leopoldo Torres Balvas, who lit inside him the passion for History and its importance in the field. However, during his stay in Rome, he sealed his love and respect for architectural history forever. He became acquainted with personalities from various fields that would mark his path, such as Bruno Zevi.

Moneo approaches his work by the philosophy that originates architectural form and the concepts, ideas, and historical heritage in its composition. His ideology revolves around reinventing and resignifying History through contemporary architecture, creating spaces that will forever remain in people’s consciousness.

“We are not before a kind of knowledge that can be systematized, but I’m conscious that by critically approaching the past one can say a lot of things about what an architect’s job is nowadays.” (Diaz Guardiola, J., 2013)

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The National Museum of Roman Art (Mérida, Spain. 1980 – 1986) follows the original traces of Merida’s planimetry to continue the track of the past in the present. Source:  https://rafaelmoneo.com/en/studio/
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Built on an archeological site over the remains of an ancient Roman city, the Museum alludes to Roman civilization employing the same technical and constructive methods. This influence was the milestone of this project. Source:  https://rafaelmoneo.com/en/studio/
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The overall image is of historical revindication as if the unveiled city rose from the ashes with its original language and techniques but with renewed contemporary airs. Source: https://rafaelmoneo.com/en/studio/

2. “What really generates a project is an idea that functions in a social or material context […]”

(Zaera, A., 1994) [1]

“I like working in cities with character, regardless of the size”. (Delirious New Blog, 2014)

 Moneo understands architecture as a whole with its context, an idea that works in synergy in a physical, social space with its own language, symbols, and dynamics. He believes the city to be a system of signs of high complexity that evolves according to the passing of History and requires investigation and interpretation. 

“One of the basic facts for an architect’s work is the realization that as a rule, what you do lies within a superior structure that does not let you be self-sufficient.” (El Croquis, 2000)[1].  

This ideology brings him to define the architect’s role to understand how to reinvent the urban tissue without leaving the past behind; to seek harmony in the composition, coming to an agreement with the existing surroundings rather than focusing on the meaning of the building per se, but never falling into classic historicism. 

“[…] the building not as an isolated object, but as something embedded in a broader reality, that is the city or the humanized landscape.”  (Diaz Guardiola, J., 2013).  

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Following the demolition between Frenería y San Patricio street in the historical Plaza del Cardenal Belluga, Moneo received the commission to build the Murcia City Hall. Source: https://rafaelmoneo.com/en/studio/
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The Plaza del Cardenal Belluga displays the sights of the Cathedral’s historical facade, Cardenal Belluga’s Palace, and 20th-century homes built by the bourgeoisie. The building dialogues with the pre-existing buildings, merging in the context while reinventing the classic language of architecture. Source:  https://rafaelmoneo.com/en/studio/
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The stone facade seeks to represent the contemporary social and political structure, assuring the role of the civilians is present in the institution.  Source: https://rafaelmoneo.com/en/studio/
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Here, architecture and physical, ideological context function as a whole as the City Hall dialogues with its surroundings with immense accord and sensibility.  Source: https://rafaelmoneo.com/en/studio/

3. “There is always a moment of randomness in origin.”

(Zaera. A,1994)[2]

“Form follows function” does not precisely apply in Rafael Moneo’s architectural conception. He finds the origin of his work in itself, the materialization of a concept that seeks to solve a concrete problem. Rather than restricting the form to the programmatic needs, he lets his mind wander in these first sketches, where everything is possible, and with precision begins to solve the puzzle into the concept that is his work. 

“The development of a project is important in that it involves a process of increasing precision: the initial idea is always more blurred.” (Zaera. A, 1994)[2]

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Moneo portrays in a series of flash, expressive lines the essence of the building. Source “ Type and memory. Tools for the religious architecture of Rafael Moneo” ©David García-Asenjo.
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The final floor plan displays some original ideas, such as the welcoming gesture of the transition between the access and the interior.  ©David García-Asenjo
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However, the centralized conceived building mutated into a longitudinal organization to fit the liturgical procession and functional needs. Source:  https://rafaelmoneo.com/en/studio/
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From aribtriety and freedom to organized reality. Source:  https://rafaelmoneo.com/en/studio/

4.“I don’t believe architecture is only made for connoisseurs.”

(Zaera, A. 1994)[1]

His philosophy revolves around architecture being universal, meant for everyone’s enjoyment and comprehension. In an interview, he addressed one of his favorite definitions for architecture as the “metaphorical use of the word by the people,” (Arquine, 2019) meaning architecture is what the people believe it to be. Ideologically speaking, to his eyes, architecture should reach out to every sector of society, not needing to stand out to be admired for its complexity but to be in essence.

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In 1983 Moneo executed the first Atocha Central Station Enlargement. He restored its historical facade alongside and updated services to fit transportation needs. Source: Rafael Moneo Study website
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The station comes alive as the skylights and the overall ceiling’s design embeds the dim space with light, bringing innovative design to the most mundane aspects of everyday life. Source:  https://rafaelmoneo.com/en/studio/
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The last intervention reinterpreted the traveling environment by creating a greenhouse, building an enjoyable, inclusive area. Moneo designed new commodities employing the same materials. He painted modern structures white to be easily recognized from the originals. Source Flickr ©Yaroslav Romanenko
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Despite this project’s complexity, the magnificent architecture presents itself in the most mundane of all landscapes in everyday life. It’s not an iconic, unreachable work, too complex to be discussed by ordinary people. Source: https://rafaelmoneo.com/en/studio/

5.”The construction of architecture has specific symbols that make it different from a painting or a poem.” 

The figure of Rafael Moneo has proven to be particular and eclectic compared to his fellow contemporaries, and his vision towards the interdisciplinary practice of architecture proves it once again. As an intellectual, a critic that recognizes the complexity of modern times, he grants architecture the role of a “translator,” avoiding literality and absorbing merely the essential. His ideals express the will to prevent the numbness and contamination of the architectural language, being its dictionary vast enough to fend for himself without the need of other disciplines merging in. This way of thinking has been frowned upon, but he has always stood up for his ideologies.

Moneo once said, “architecture is who invents the conditions that allow building.” (Arquine, 2019) With such power, why would she want to be something else?

Every step led him down the path towards an intellectual, comprehensive, sensitive, bright mind with strong philosophical convictions and ideologies, with the power to synthesize and articulate the context, History, and humanity within the boundaries of architecture. That is Rafael Moneo: a wonderfully eclectic character with eyes glistening with wisdom and a solemn presence, whether in the comfort of his own home or at the front of the most prestigious universities. He feels a profound passion for architecture, aware of the weight of his work and the importance of its precise execution. He is a real master inside and outside the classroom.

“I believe my work, having been linked to teaching, has always been a reflexive practice, obliged by the desire to give reasons: not only I sought to embed architecture in the city, but also to temporarily place it in History, which means linking it to culture.” 


  1. Arquine (2019). Conversación con Rafael Moneo. [Youtube Video]. Available at: https://youtu.be/yU0u0H-NO3E. [Accessed: 15 Abril 2021].
  2. Delirious New Blog (2014). Elogios de la Luz #3: Rafael Moneo, Coraje y Convicción. [Youtube video]. Available at: https://youtu.be/2NnR2suWAMo [Accessed 18 April 2021]
  3. J. Diaz Guardiola/ ABC Cultural. Rafael Moneo: «El mundo nunca estará del todo resuelto. No hay que angustiarse por ello» [online]. Available at: https://www.abc.es/cultura/cultural/20131028/abci-cultural-m111-arquitectura-entrevista-201310281111.html [Accessed 16 April 2021]
  4. Zaera, A. (1994) [1]. A Conversation with Rafael Moneo, Winter 1994. El Croquis, 98, pg. 22.
  5. Zaera, A. (1994) [2]. A Conversation with Rafael Moneo, Winter 1994. El Croquis, 98, pg. 23.

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