Anne Wynne on The Life of Buildings by Rafael Moneo

Image 01: Marks of the layering of different periods of construction of the building, including reused Roman columns. Photo by the author.
Image 02: The distinctive, non-hierarchical field of columns, which appear to run in all directions, with some of the earlier Christian modifications appearing as a secondary element in the background. Photo by the author.
Image 03: A severe interruption of the space of the mosque by the insertion of the gothic cathedral. Photo by the author.
Image 04: National Youth Theatre, London. Structural alterations allowed for the creation of a new studio theatre space within the existing  building. Existing finishes were not changed except where repairs or performance upgrades were required. These signs of past occupation and use, and the unfinished feel of new insertions and surfaces, suggest the potential for future improvisation and continued adaptation of the building. Photographer: Jim Stephenson. Credit: DSDHA.

Rafael Moneo’s essay, ‘The Life of Buildings – The Extensions to the Mosque of Cordoba’ from 1977 offers a reading of the building’s construction over eight centuries. Reading it now, it suggests an agenda for current architectural practice, one concerned with making buildings that can bear radical change and future uses, unanticipated at the time of their construction. This adaptability is not related to Modernist concepts of endless flexibility but to the building’s architectural integrity, which allows for its change and transformation.

“Change, continuous intervention, is the fate, whether one wants it or not, of architecture. Architects’ concern to take into account continuous change, thus ensuring the work of architecture answers adequately to the passage of time, has led to the introduction of concepts of flexibility and multi-functionality. These concepts are born from the implicit idea that the eternal youth of a building, its resistance to the passage of time, would be achieved through an ‘open project’, permitting a continuous adaptation to a reality which is necessarily changing. The architect would enable her or his work to withstand the passage of time, provided the project could qualify as ‘open’. But experience shows that the life of buildings manifests itself through the permanence over time of a building’s most distinctive formal characteristics and, therefore, its life does not reside so much in the project’s process as in the autonomy that the building acquires once built.”[1]

I am interested in the idea that building lifespan and sustainability are not just technical or engineering matters (with solutions derived solely from analysis of material performance and embodied carbon calculations) but also cultural and architectural ones, and that the history of architecture can inform ideas on what a contemporary, ecologically-responsible architecture might be like. Moneo’s study of the architecture of the mosque highlights the value of its deliberately non-deterministic, non-particularised spaces, over the very long life of the building, so that the work “transcends the architect, going beyond the moment when its construction is completed, and it can, therefore, be contemplated in the changing perspective of history without its identity being lost over the passage of time. The principles of the discipline, established by the architect at the time of the construction of the work, will be kept throughout its history and, if they are robust enough, the building will be able to absorb transformations, changes, distortions, and so on, while never ceasing to be the building it was – respecting, in short, its origins.”[2]

An important idea in this essay is that it is possible for historic buildings, even particularly precious ones with important histories that are to be conserved, to be extended or modified in unanticipated ways, and for the building’s integrity to remain intact.
It is usually thought that the life of buildings concludes with their construction and that the integrity of a building consists of keeping it exactly as its builders left it. This would reduce its life to a single, condensed instant. In some cases it is relevant to insist on the strict conservation of a building; however that means, in a way, that the building has died…”.[3]

The mosque of Cordoba is an extreme case, in that this unusually beautiful building has been radically and  controversially altered over the course of its existence, but there is an implied criticism of some contemporary building conservation practices that prioritise maintaining a building’s image from one particular moment in history above all else, neglecting other architectural evolutions and the impacts of the passage of time that are embodied in its built fabric.

Moneo’s essay offers an account of the many changes made to the mosque. These include the large extension built under Almanzor, which seems to have been created mainly for political reasons, as “a monumental public work, as a demonstration of power”,[4] its conversion for Christian worship purposes and, most drastically, the controversial project to insert a gothic cathedral at the centre of the mosque in the 16th century. In Moneo’s view, these significant redevelopments have not destroyed the architecture of the mosque: “I rather think that the fact that the mosque is still itself after all the interventions undertaken constitutes a homage to its own integrity. Its general physical features, its architecture, have remained despite the vicissitudes here described”.[5]

To me, this reflection on the very long history of a single and very particular building, serves as a reminder that contributing to making buildings and spaces (new ones or those made from existing buildings), which have the potential to exist into the distant future, is one of the most interesting aspects, and really a privilege, of doing architectural work. This idea is articulated well in Pier Paolo Tamburelli’s text, Remote Future, from his 2022 book, On Bramante: “And this is also where contemporary architecture finds its greatest value, as evidence that the world did not begin yesterday and hopefully is not going to finish tomorrow, that different ways of measuring time coexist in our lives, that not everything is exhausted in the interval between the appearance of a model of phone and the announcement of the one that will replace it…”.[6]   

When we work on buildings for the arts or performance, I have found that there is an increased possibility to have an early look at this ‘remote future’, to see them used in unexpected ways. I worked on the project for the redevelopment of the National Youth Theatre building in London with DSDHA a few years ago, a building that had already been modified and used in many different ways since its construction in the 19th century. On the day of completion of construction, before the building contractors were even out of the building, the theatre school was already converting one of the studio spaces that had just been finished into a nightclub environment for a production, using dark paint and mirrors. It made for a completely new, virtually unrecognisable, experience of the space that we had drawn and watched being built.

[1] Rafael Moneo, “The Life of Buildings – The Extensions to the Mosque of Cordoba,” in Rafael Moneo: Building, Teaching, Writing, ed. Francisco González de Canales Ruiz and Nicholas Ray (New Haven: Yale University Press 2015), 267.

[2] Moneo, 268.

[3] Moneo, 281.

[4] Moneo, 276.

[5] Moneo, 281.

[6] Pier Paolo Tamburelli, On Bramante (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2022), 68.

Note on where to read Rafael Moneo’s essay: Published in English as an appendix to ‘Rafael Moneo: Building, Teaching, Writing’ by Francisco González de Canales Ruiz and Nicholas Ray, Yale University Press, 2015. It is published more widely in print and online in Spanish, Italian and French.

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