Geometry in the Architectural Design of Rafael Moneo

Geometry in the Architectural Design of Rafael Moneo

José Antonio Franco Taboada (Universidade da Coruña, Spain)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0029-2.ch028
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In the architectural work of Rafael Moneo, winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1996, geometry is a fundamental element, as he has confirmed through his writings and the very reality of his work. This chapter contains an analysis of the geometric component of his work, through his writings and interviews, but also through the drawings and models of his works that are most paradigmatic or most representative of his architectural style. Also analyzed are the possible influences from other architects and important works from the history of architecture. The conclusion is that the geometric component underlying his works has its roots in Platonic thought and that for Moneo, architectural ideas have an ontological nature, transcending the imperfection inherent in nature and approaching the perfection of Platonic order.
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If there is one dialog that reflects the true thinking of Plato, it is without doubt Timaeus, or of Nature. In The school of Athens, Raphael pictorially captured the wisdom of the ages that fostered the new Renaissance of which he would become one of its most prominent names. Among the philosophers, mathematicians and scientists, he highlighted the figure of Plato, placed with Aristotle in the geometric and perspective center of the composition. The work Plato is holding in his hands is of course Timaeus.

The main narrator, and the one who gives his name to the dialog, is the Greek philosopher Timaeus, who describes the four elements that make up the cosmos as a combination of geometric elements based ultimately on the triangle. Thanks to this geometry, ultimately forming the universe, the universe becomes a little more orderly and understandable to the human mind. All the elements emerge from this primordial triangle:

For either structure did not originally produce the triangle of one size only, but some larger and some smaller, and there are as many sizes as there are species of the four elements. Hence when they are mingled with themselves and with one another there is an endless variety of them. (Platón [393-389 B.C.] 1969, 1153).

However, the existence of the elements will lead us, or at least this seems to be Plato's intention, to perception through a new concept, that of necessity and therefore of an incomprehensible presence, that of place. Plato says that:

And there is a third nature, which is place, and is eternal, and admits not of destruction and provides a home for all created things, and is apprehended without the help of sense, by a kind of spurious reason, and is hardly real; which we beholding as in a dream, say of all existence that it must of necessity be in some place and occupy a space, but that what is neither in heaven nor in earth has no existence (Platón [393-389 B.C.] 1969, 1149).

As summarized by Francisco P. de Samaranch, translator of the dialog from Greek to Spanish and author of the preface to it, “The theory of place thus appears in Timaeus like the physical transposition of a dialectical theory” (Platón [393-389 B.C.] 1969, 1115).

This theory of place would inspire many contemporary architects, including many outstanding figures such as Alvar Aalto, Aldo Rossi and, among the current figures, Álvaro Siza and of course Rafael Moneo, who went beyond its initial landscape connotations to examine the problem of architecturally introducing concrete buildings into a space. However, it is one thing trying to capture the genius loci, the spirit of place that the eighteenth-century English poet Alexander Pope rescued from Roman mythology and that Christian Norberg-Schulz instituted as a fundamental principle of architectural phenomenology, but quite another to achieve this.

Geometry would be an invariant in all of Moneo's work, not only literally but also conceptually. As noted by the Spanish writer and historian Ángeles Caso:

Moneo does not impose his buildings like an omnipotent God showing us the path to follow and the landscape to contemplate, but rather places them gently into the place with which, from that moment, they will be united. He knows how to find beauty and offer it to our eyes in the seemingly most simple way, one that is often the most difficult to achieve. Beauty in architecture is a very complex concept that affects both the appearance of the work as well as its utility, almost in a platonic way (Moix, 2013).

Moneo designs his buildings starting with space seen in this platonic way. For him, the determining factors when undertaking a project have always been “Those related to the site and the program” (Moix, 2013). For him:

A great work of architecture ends up being so blended into the environment that it does not attract attention. It is understood as part of it. This is the most that a work of architecture can aspire to… What in the twentieth-century was called “modern architecture” intended to blur the distinction between inside and outside. Works of architecture enjoyed such autonomy that they ignored the environment around them. I have always believed that this was not so (Espejo, 2014).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Chillida, Oteiza: The two greatest contemporary Basque sculptors died very close to each other (the first in August 2002, the second in April 2003). Their most representative, abstract sculptures can be admired in two museums dedicated to them: Chillida Leku, in San Sebastian and the Oteiza Foundation, in Navarre, both in Spain.

Roman Construction, Roman Spirit: Their characteristic elements were architectural features such as the arch and dome, and materials such as Roman cement and concrete, obviously as well as stone and brick. Their spirit was characterized by their practicality and taste for the monumental.

Platonic Solids: Platonic solids are regular convex polyhedrons in which all the faces are equal regular polygons (with all sides equal). There are five: the tetrahedron, which for Plato symbolizes fire; the hexahedron or cube, the earth; the octahedron, the air; the icosahedron, the water and the dodecahedron, the edge of the world.

Sail Vault/Sail Dome: This results from the intersection of a spherical cap or a semi-sphere with a right prism with a square base carved on its base, i.e. with four vertical planes. They are also known as pendentive domes and byzantine domes, although these are generally crowned with semi-spheres.

High-Tech Architecture: Architectural style developed from the sixties, but which has its origin in the iron and glass architecture of the 19th century, whose highest expression is the Crystal Palace building by Joseph Paxton. In this style materials of industrial origin, which are seen on the exterior, dominate, giving the building a clearly high-tech appearance.

Axonometric Representations of Choisy: The axonometric projections developed by the French engineer Auguste Choisy (1841-1909) AU124: The in-text citation "Choisy (1841-1909)" is not in the reference list. Please correct the citation, add the reference to the list, or delete the citation. were the first created to show the higher areas of buildings. In other words, they were zenithal views which, on necessarily being sectioned, also displayed the internal materials of these.

Downward Vertical Perspective: This is a very rarely used type of linear perspective and one that Moneo uses as the best way to display an urban complex and the relationships between its different elements. The plane of the square is horizontal, in such a way that all vertical lines run to a single point of view and all horizontal lines are parallel to each other.

Spanish Baroque, Altarpiece: Spanish Baroque architecture differs from its European counterparts because it evolved from the Renaissance architecture in a more artificial way than they did. Among its variants we can highlight the Churrigueresque style (by architect José de Churriguera), with the Solomonic columns that characterize that style. The Baroque altarpieces accompany this architecture, masking the Renaissance architectures and previous styles with its formal complexity in such a way that they appear Baroque.

Genius Loci: Literally translated as “the spirit of the site”, a protective spirit according to Roman mythology. Its modern architectural meaning was developed by Christian Norberg-Schulz in his book, Genius Loci : Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture . For him, the basic task of architecture is to understand the “vocation of the site”, which leads to the protection of the earth and an avoidance of environmental disruption.

Cerdá Plan: The famous plan for remodeling and expanding Barcelona designed by the engineer Ildefonso Cerdá in 1860, subsequently set out in his “Teoría General de la Urbanización (General Theory of Urbanization)”. Unfortunately, many of his decisions were not applied due to special interests and the consequent speculation.

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