Q&A: Rafael Moneo

Last month Rafael Moneo, 80, was the inaugural recipient of the Soane Medal. The architect of the National Museum of Roman Art in Merida and the extension to the Prado Museum considers the death of modernism and architects in a more humble role

How do you feel about receiving the Soane Museum’s very first Soane Medal?

I was unaware of the estimation with which Sir John Soane was still held in by British architects so to receive the inaugural Medal and to be considered part of his lineage is a true honour.

Do you see any parallels in your achievements with the work of Soane himself?

I wouldn’t dare to assume that I shared the same psychological characteristics as Soane, but I know that he lived for architecture with a committed passion, and I’d hope that I share something of that trait. I can understand the fact that Rome was a determinant factor in his life, and the powerful influence in his life of great teachers; in Soane’s case George Dance and for me it has been Jørn Utzon. The methods by which Soane experimented with light in his buildings, particularly at Dulwich, paved the way for the modern museum environment.

In your Soane lecture you seemed to deliver a eulogy to modernism but not say what might replace it?

I think it’s very hard to say what that is; what I do believe is that the most recent architectural language does not seem to be dictated by chronology or narratives. What I was saying is that architectural history still seems to use the concept of modernism as a pivot point in contemporary discourse but I actually think that it, and its references, are no longer relevant. We need a new way of looking at history.

Do critics need to help define the new context of architecture? Can’t architects do that?

Not on their own – they are too immersed in the subject to be able to analyse it objectively. That’s why critics, along with social commentators and historians, need to help move the discussion forward; to understand the criteria that are informing the development of architectural language and form. We need to think of architecture in less formal and more  reflective terms.

How do you feel your own oeuvre has contributed to the discussion?

I suppose that in my own career and life I’ve resisted egotistically seeing the idea of the building as an isolated object; that everything I’ve done tries to relate the design to a broader social or urban context. We should pay respect to the implicit forms that have been part of urban growth; to understand that buildings are not the product of working in isolation but a co-dependent relationship with the city itself.