ARCHITECTURE, October 1999 (original URL)







How does one build in a space like the Plaza Cardenal Belluga? asked Rafael Moneo when he began designing an annex to the city hall of Murcia, a dense and picturesque medieval town near the Mediterranean coast of Spain, northeast of Granada. The Spanish architect was daunted by the task of building the final punctuation mark on the plaza, Murcia's grandest and most important public space. Defining two faces of the plaza are an imposing 16th-century cathedral on the east and the quieter cardinal's palace dating from 1768 on the south. Along the remaining edge, a row of 18th-century houses brings to life street-level cafés. 

What Moneo faced was in many ways a thoroughly European problem of adding new uses and structures to ancient environments - but with a few twists. In the case of the Plaza Cardenal Belluga, the buildings surrounding the plaza were as strong in character as the irregular space they described; the solids were as important as the voids. And the site of the new city hall annex would put it squarely opposite and on axis with the cathedral, creating an urbanistic tension that Americans might find troubling: a direct confrontation of church and state. In a country where the Catholic Church wielded so much power for so many centuries, the relationship is even more loaded. 

Moneo claims to have created a building "content in its role as spectator, without seeking the status of protagonist held by the cathedral and the palace." The building may have been cast as a supporting player in the urban drama of its surroundings, but it has strong character and authority. Moneo filled in a small site directly opposite the cathedral, on the western edge of the plaza, where the city demolished an historic house to make way for an expansion of the 19th-century city hall just off the square. The architect outlined the existing curved boundary of the site with an open moat and oriented the blocky 3,000-square-meter building within this void. Moneo oriented the building to face the cathedral head-on - unlike the site's previous structure - and kept the street lines intact on the site's north and south flanks. The irregular residual space between the building and the edge of its moat became a submerged, open-air seating area for a café at the bottom level. 

Citizens enter the annex either through the principal public entrance on the north side or by crossing a glass-enclosed bridge linking the second floor of the addition with the existing city hall to the south. In deference to its neighbors, it was important to Moneo that the building not be entered from the plaza. On the street level of the six-floor building are the offices of Murcia's information and tourism departments, as well as a legislative chamber that doubles as a public lecture hall with seating for 160. Below the ground-floor offices is a small café that opens onto the sunken court. The remaining levels are a fairly standard arrangement of offices. The only notable exception is an airy, double-height reception room on the third level that opens onto a loggia along the east facade, facing the cathedral. The interior palette is dignified but exceedingly quiet for a civic landmark. The stone and wood floors, stucco walls, and wooden paneling are "discreet and almost imperceptible," as Moneo describes them, "though befitting public spaces" with their quiet dignity. 

On its north and south facades, the building's exterior says little. Square windows punched into its skin of a golden local sandstone called lumaquella respect the rhythm and scale of the building's tight confines. Solid sills of overhanging stone slabs are the only articulation in the smooth, planar faces. 

The plaza facade is where Moneo's design sets forth its ideology. This single elevation, roughly a golden section in profile, encapsulates the entire building's attitudes toward its surroundings and toward history and modernity, order and disorder. Atop its lumaquella base are bands of stark stone piers that support the exposed concrete slabs of balconies tucked behind the shifting scrim of columns. Moneo modulates the rectangular openings of this blunt trabeation floor by floor; each level of this outermost skin is set to its own syncopated rhythm. "This facade," explains Moneo, "could never, nor would ever, want to compete with classical order. It is organized as a musical score: numerically. It resists symmetries and accepts as a key element the balcony of the gallery." 

The composition reads like the cold, classically leaning facades of Italian rationalists Giuseppe Terragni or Marcello Piacenti gone haywire. Freed of their structural imperatives, the square columns bunch up and spread out at will. Within a single flat plane, Moneo's civic annex becomes as affected and self-conscious as the baroque cathedral - but never relinquishes its sense of order and rationality. There are moments when the building follows external cues: Window lines mimic those of its neighbors, for instance, and the ceremonial balcony aligns with the piano nobile of the cardinal's palace. The number game Moneo plays within the facade expresses a localized order. Each level of columns follows its own regular rhythm; together, the layers read as simultaneous melodies or separate instruments playing their own part of a symphony. This facade is Goethe's credo of frozen music writ large - and literal. 

Although Moneo wanted his addition to defer to its historic setting, it's not as reverent as he claims. The building makes a clever game of playing order against disorder to assert its own identity among its ornamented neighbors. More importantly, though, this annex introduces a new civic role to an important space in Murcia's public and religious life.

MURCIA TOWN HALL, MURCIA, SPAIN
CLIENT: Municipal Government of Murcia, Murcia, Spain - Miguel Angel Camara (mayor)
ARCHITECT: José Rafael Moneo Architects, Madrid, Spain - Rafael Moneo (principal); Javier Revillo, Michal Bischoff, Valeria Koukoutsi (project architects); Belén Hermida, Francisco Gonalez Peiró (working drawings) 
ENGINEERS: Mariano Moneo (structural); JG Associates (mechanical); Francisco Gonalez Peiró, Carlos Mar'n (quantity surveyors) 
CONSULTANTS: Rafael Moneo (furniture)
GENERAL CONTRACTOR: Dragados (Comylsa) 
COST: $3.1 million 
PHOTOGRAPHER: Duccio Malagamba

Glass-enclosed bridge over street connects new annex to existing 19th-century city hall.




Top-floor balcony behind square stone columns of east facade opens onto panoramic views of baroque cathedral (top). Annex's rhythmically patterned main facade overlooks outdoor cafés along northern edge of plaza (above).



For first time, annex gives city government presence on Murcia's most important public space.