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Rafael Moneo's quest for stimulating subtlety

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Clare Melhuish reviews. . .

Rafael Moneo has done as much as Frank Gehry - indeed more - to revitalise the provincial cities of Spain, but with far less fanfare. For as he says: 'I like public buildings that enjoy being inconspicuous.'

His scheme for the Kursal cultural complex at San Sebastian, Bilbao's neighbour, is far less known to the general public, probably because the buildings comprise a pair of simple orthogonal boxes rather than the angular complexity and exaggerated materiality of Gehry's work. But it is also surprising, because Moneo's project occupies a far more prominent and visually impressive site.

It is at the edge of the city by the sea - and by night, it is illuminated like a giant beacon, the glass envelope glowing with an ethereal white light, described by Moneo as a 'celebratory lamp'.

Moneo reveals that this project met with considerable opposition from the townsfolk of San Sebastian, an elegant belle epoque city in a wonderful natural location, with traditionally, a high sense of self-esteem. They saw it as a Modernist enterprise that would force a jarring disjunction with the existing urban fabric, despite its dislocated site. But it is now used for a great variety of events, and Moneo uses the word 'celebration' again in describing the atmosphere inside when people, looking for their seats, negotiate the 'almost Baroque layout' of the stairs, 'jumping and dancing in the space'. By contrast, Bilbao was a depressed industrial centre which had 'almost completely wasted its natural condition', but has succeeded in transforming its own self-image through the Guggenheim.

In the view of Alan Colquhoun, conversing with Moneo, the architectural strategy for the two buildings is much the same - 'exploding the context'. Moneo describes his own work as an 'energy infection', comparing it to that of the sculptor Corteza, but it has a fundamental aesthetic modesty, which stops short of any attempt to reinvent architectural form. The defining impulse seems to be a great enthusiasm for public life as the celebratory life force or soul of the city, and he underlines 'the issue of centrality' as one of the greatest importance: 'To work in the middle of the city is the greatest work for an architect.'With the House of Culture in Dom Benito - a site more comparable to that of the Guggenheim - the aim was to 'intensify', not 'explode', the building condition.

Moneo uses internal courtyards to generate light within, and arranges the spaces around them 'with freedom' in such a way as to defy the tight constraints and enclosure imposed by the location.

Buildings are an 'important frame for public life' - yet Moneo speaks of his ambition, with a current project in Toledo, to build a 'hiding programme', flying in the face of its exposed location on the cliff. This is an architect, then, for whom culture essentially means 'people's satisfaction', not aesthetic high-jinks.

Rafael Moneo was speaking on Culture and the City, in the Royal Academy/LSE Public Architecture series.

He will be followed by Jacques Herzog on 7 March

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