spanish architect rafael moneo has been presented the golden lion for lifetime achievement at the venice architecture biennale, which opens to the public on may 22, 2021. the decision was made upon the recommendation of the event’s curator hashim sarkis, who has planned a small exhibition at the giardini featuring a selection of models and illustrations detailing moneo’s work. based in madrid, moneo has been awarded numerous prizes and distinctions including the pritzker prize in 1996, the praemium imperiale, and the inaugural soane medal in 2017.

rafael moneo venice biennale golden lion
rafael moneo | image © germán saiz



‘even though I am quite aware of the changes that have happened in today’s architectural scene, I still believe in thinking in terms of form connecting with construction,’ moneo told designboom in a previous interview. ‘I like to see architecture be very directly related to the original materiality when a building is constructed and when it acquires its own consistency with the scene.’ explore 10 of moneo’s key projects in more detail below.




national museum of roman art

rafael moneo venice biennale golden lion
national museum of roman art, mérida, spain (1980-1986) | image © michael moran



located in mérida, a city in south western spain, the national museum of roman art was completed by moneo in 1986. the project is one of the architect’s earliest projects, and remains one of his most recognized works. after archeologists excavated a whole block and found aqueducts, foundations of renaissance courtyards, cisterns, and even the remains of an early christian church, moneo’s brief was to showcase these ruins within a new museum building. conceived as a missing link between roman and contemporary culture, the structure stands today as landmark for the entire city. ‘despite the use of roman construction methods, the architectural mechanisms are certainly contemporary, and perhaps it is the harmony between the two that makes this museum highly attractive,’ muses the architect.




murcia city hall

rafael moneo venice biennale golden lion
murcia city hall, murcia, spain (1991-1998) | image © michael moran



murcia city hall was completed on a complicated plot on plaza del cardenal belluga, a prominent public space that includes the city’s cathedral. designed in the early 1990s, with the excesses of 1980s postmodernism still in recent memory, moneo took the brief as an opportunity to prove that debate on how to build in a historical city had not reached any definitive conclusions. ‘basically, there are no rules when it comes to intervening in a historical city,’ says the architect. displaying a vertical pilaster structure that accommodates a horizontal slab system, the city hall appears as a contemporary version of the cathedral’s baroque façade. ‘the murcia project hopes to demonstrate that respect for what already exists is no obstacle for freedom in architecture,’ moneo continues.




kursaal auditorium and congress center

rafael moneo venice biennale golden lion
kursaal auditorium and congress center, san sebastián (1990-1999) | image © michael moran (also main image)



located in san sebastián, overlooking the bay of biscay, the kursaal auditorium and congress center appears as two large volumes positioned at the river’s mouth. rather than extend the city’s urban fabric, moneo chose to design a building that would stay true to its geographic location. conceived as giant beached rocks, the two cubes also reference the landscape — echoing the form of the neighboring mount urgull and mount ulia. to realize this vision, the architect explored the potential of glass — a material that he had never worked with before. moneo says that the building has two main sources of inspiration: the sydney opera house designed by jørn utzon, and the sculptures of jorge oteiza.




cathedral of our lady of the angels

10 key projects by rafael moneo, recipient of the venice biennale's golden lion for lifetime achievement
cathedral of our lady of the angels, los angeles, USA (1996-2002)



in the summer of 1996, rafael moneo began working on a design for a new catholic cathedral planned for los angeles. responding to the complexity of the program, and its location overlooking grand avenue, moneo’s design was somewhat unconventional for a church with entrances located at the side of the altar and chapels that open into an outer ambulatory rather than the nave. completed in 2002, the cathedral, built with colored reinforced concrete, does incorporate features typically associated with religious architecture. the building is surrounded by a public space capable of hosting events and activities.




prado museum extension

10 key projects by rafael moneo, recipient of the venice biennale's golden lion for lifetime achievement
prado museum extension, madrid, spain (1998-2007) | image by trevor patt / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0



described by moneo as ‘not just a building, but an intervention in the city’, the enlargement of the prado museum took over a decade to be realized. dealing with a complex site, which was not clearly defined, moneo’s intervention freed the original building — designed by juan de villanueva — of many of its obligations. the new building, which is partially underground, contains the museum’s shops and cafeteria as well as other programs not directly related to the exhibition of works of art.




toledo convention center

10 key projects by rafael moneo, recipient of the venice biennale's golden lion for lifetime achievement
toledo convention center, toledo, spain (2000-2010) | image by nathan bishop / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0



occupying a plot that was previously home to a dilapidated shopping center and parking lot, the toledo convention center is located on a hillside plot overlooking the tagus river. designed to blend perfectly into its surroundings, the building contains an auditorium seating 1,000, as well as all the services required of a convention center. conceived as an extension of the plaza de zocodover, the project also includes a terrace-garden that can be accessed through a small square.




laboratories building for columbia university

10 key projects by rafael moneo, recipient of the venice biennale's golden lion for lifetime achievement
laboratories building for columbia university, new york, USA (2005-2010) | image © duccio malagamba



located on the last available plot on at columbia university’s morningside campus in new york, the laboratories building serves as the new gateway to the campus from its manhattanville expansion. completing the campus, the building follows the formal parameters originally established by mckim, mead & white in the 1890s. the new building had to be built over a ground level gymnasium that dates back to the 1970s, with the structural feat of spanning 125 feet over the existing gym considered the project’s defining gesture. externally, the structural frame is represented by a pattern of aluminum fins on the façade that create a patchwork of light and shadow. meanwhile, internally, the building houses laboratory space as well as supporting classrooms, offices and study areas. additional programming includes a research library, a 170-seat auditorium, a public café, and a new entrance to the university’s gymnasium.




atocha station enlargement

10 key projects by rafael moneo, recipient of the venice biennale's golden lion for lifetime achievement
atocha station enlargement, madrid, spain (1984-2012) | image by luis garcía / CC BY-SA 4.0



over the course of three decades, rafael moneo transformed madrid’s atocha station. the first phase of the project, completed in 1992, involved the extension and remodeling of the building’s historical roof, as well as the creation of a local commuter train station, a bus interchange, and a parking lot. later, in 2012, moneo enlarged the station with a new terminal to accommodate new high-speed train lines. ‘the atocha station project was based on a strategy which gave priority to the idea of urban continuity,’ explains the architect.




puig tower

rafael moneo praemium imperiale
puig tower, barcelona, spain (2006-2014) | image by david cardelus



in 2014, rafael moneo completed a tower for puig — a fashion and fragrance company — on barcelona’s plaza europa. completed in collaboration with GCA architects, the project is defined by its spiraling glazed façade that provides the interiors with an attractive filter that improves the building’s insulation. the project was documented in more detail by photographer david cardelus in an article which can be seen here.




university museum of navarra
university museum of navarra in pamplona, spain (2008-2014) | image © museo universidad de navarra



the museum university of navarra in pamplona was designed to be integrated within the existing campus without spoiling the natural setting. as well as housing the institution’s art and photography collection, the museum also incorporates its performing arts program, with an auditorium capable of holding 750 spectators. ‘the original program — the small museum to house the maria josefa huarte collection — has turned into a complex program that should also include social spaces that will favor the relational life between professors, students and visitors,’ explains moneo.