Modest hero `a classical revolutionary'

Rafael Moneo is a hero among Spanish architects. What won him the Los Angeles commission was apparently the city's desire for a "Spanish spirit" to reflect its Hispanic roots. If brooding, baroque opulence is what they want, they can forget it. Moneo is the master of the cool, forward- looking structure that enhances its context without outflanking it.

"Wise architecture," was one critic's verdict some years back. "The work of a classical revolutionary."

Moneo was awarded the international Pritzker Architecture prize, worth $100,000, (pounds 66,300) on Wednesday in Los Angeles. Reports in the Spanish press yesterday described the recipient as proud and self-confident, but modest. Just like his buildings.

The critic Fernando Samaniego yesterday summed the architect up thus: "Moneo is classical and avant-garde at the same time, but not to excess. His work shows a strong link to the places where his buildings are situated. He is the Spanish architect most widely respected among his peers."

It is some indication of the esteem in which this unassuming man is held that Spanish architects in 1994 voted his National Museum of Roman Art in Merida, completed in 1986 on the excavated site of Spain's principal Roman city, the best public building of the decade.

Other triumphs include Madrid's reincarnated Atocha station, combining the original majestic ironwork with four times the capacity, and the transformation of an austere 18th-century palace into the popular Thyssen-Bornemisza art museum.

Completed in 1992, both buildings have blended into the fabric of the capital, and it is impossible to enter either without your spirits lifting. Each carries heavy historical baggage, which Moneo transmutes into something light and modern. In contrast to monumental constructions that make you feel like an ant, Moneo treats you like a human being.

The exciting thing about buildings, said Moneo recently, was watching people take them over. "Buildings acquire their own life when the users, the people, become a part of the building," he said. "It is a privilege to establish the terms on which a city's reality turns. Buildings become a reference point for the lives of the people who live there."

Moneo, 58, from Tudela in Navarre, is well-established in the United States. He headed Harvard University's architecture school from 1985 to 1990, after 15 years teaching in Barcelona and Madrid.

His first US building, the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College near Boston, completed in 1993, was praised by Spanish critics as modest, cultured, elegant, without ostentation or solemnity. The description seems apt for the privileged young ladies destined to use it.

Projects in train include an extension to Mies van der Rohe's Fine Arts Museum in Houston Texas, Stockholm's Museums of Art and Architecture and a hotel in Berlin's Potsdamer Platz.

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