A modest annex to the city’s nineteenth century city hall in which the all important issue was its now famous facade to the cathedral plaza, and a plaza renovation scheme which was a subtle and poignant reinterpretation of Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome.

  • Distinct civic presence in the core of the city
  • Vibrant city plaza
  • Accommodate a variety of public and private events indoors
  • Facilities to promote employee health and wellbeing

The focus of this story is a single controversial facade built belatedly and only after much debate and discontentment in the cathedral square of Murcia, an ancient university city in southeastern Spain. Murcia was founded by the emir of Cordoba, Abd ar-Rahman II, in 825 AD, and now numbers 440,000 people.

The story begins with the minor Palacio del Doctoral La Riva, a Baroque mansion of 1797.

This building closed the west end of the Plaza del Cardenal Belluga which, with the diocesan cathedral closing its east end and the episcopal palace occupying the south side, has long been the seat of religious authority in Catholic Murcia, and is the most widely venerated space in the city.

A 1920s view of the cathedral church of Santa Maria en Murcia (1394-1467, with an eighteenth century front), at the east end of the Plaza.

The cheerfully imposing north elevation of the Rococo Palacio Episcopal of 1768, taking up the south side of the Plaza. Its south elevation is left unadorned and faces the public gardens and the river.

On the north side is a row of early twentieth century domestic buildings with cafes and restaurants on their ground floors.

This is the current arrangement of the Plaza and the Cathedral precincts. While the Palacio Episcopal presents the insistently colorful front to the Plaza that we have seen above, its secondary facade overlooking the Glorietta Espana gardens and the river, and adjoining the front of Murcia’s nineteenth century City Hall, seems, on the contrary, to retire behind a screen of trees and be deferentially sober.

Hence, on the Glorietta Espna it is the colorful front of City Hall that claims attention.

This was the setting in which the Palacio del Doctoral La Riva, having been derelict, as I understand it, since about 1950, finally came to be demolished in 1973.

Its removal brought unhappy consequences which acquired near permanence over the next twenty years. First, it elongated the Plaza to no useful purpose and laid bare a once domestic party wall with its vestiges of a private world suddenly become disturbingly public.

Then, of course, it exposed to either side a couple of less than prepossessing buildings, formerly passed by on narrow calles with scarcely a glance, apprehended, if at all, in one’s peripheral vision. On the south side, adjoining the grand Palacio Episcopal but in contrast to its front elevation overlooking the Glorietta Espana gardens and the river, there had emerged the uninviting back wall of City Hall with its grimly barred windows,

and on the north side, the even more unwelcome shiny glass of the building seen above.

But things are not hurried in Murcia and nothing much was done to ameliorate this condition until the masonry of the cathedral was cleaned in the early 1980s. An enthused public interest greeted the gleaming Baroque magnificence of its eighteenth century front, which in time pricked the city authorities into holding a national competition for the design of an annex to expand City Hall and restore the Plaza by refilling the void on the site of the former palacio, conveniently located immediately behind its existing building.

So come early 1986, the competition had been held and was won by Alberto Noguerol, an unrepentant Barcelona modernist with zero contextual sentimentality and a surprisingly sparse submission, who proposed a building enjoying parking both below grade and on the Plaza; a public reception hall occupying the entire ground floor, entered from both the re-extended calles and the Plaza; a mid-level skywalk connecting the annex to the parent building across the Calle San Patricio, which, for reasons not clear to me would also receive a pretty long zinc canopy at the sixth floor level, running just below the eaves of the existing building; and though his building’s side elevations appear to be about half transparent and half opaque, the facade to the Plaza was to be an all glass curtain wall.

The protest was massive and sustained. ‘It is an intolerable slap in the face,’ wrote Chueca Goitia in the February 14th issue of Murcia’s Catholic daily, La Verdad, succinctly anticipating the public outcry, ‘apart from shattering the setting, it is awfully bad.’ The project was shelved for the next five years, until a subsequent city administration commissioned Jose Rafael Moneo, the recently retired chair of Architecture at Harvard whose town hall for Logrono of 1973-81 we have already seen, to make a design for both a City Hall Annex and a renovated Plaza.

Moneo followed the example of the great seventeenth century ichnographic map makers with his site plan, showing both the exterior and the interior space of the institutional buildings that concern him. And while he draws his annex to City Hall, City Hall itself is clearly not of any consequence.. Though his building site was highly confined, the programmatic demands of the project were modest and the design challenge for Moneo was precisely the one that Alberto Noguerol had brushed aside: the confrontation of a venerable cathedral across a cathedral square by a modern institutional building of no great significance.

Here is a sketch which begins to identify the characteristics of the facade he will eventually build. This drawing clearly posits the Annex as having a very tall multi-layered front, rising above the wider but shorter square bulk of the Annex behind it and set back behind a low wall marking the front of the former palacio. It also has a largely blank double height basement storey such as is customary in a Renaissance palace. In this drawing the basement accommodates the Annex entry directly from the Plaza, albeit left of center, and aligned with a two storey window opening above. Though he will retain this single tall window opening as an indispensable attribute of the classical palace, clearly implying a double height piano nobile supported by the basement storey, his piano nobile will be operative only in the reception room running across the third floor front, and he will reject an entry from the Plaza. Below are some of the final floor plans.

Basement and Ground Floor Plans. As in the sketch above, the building has been set back but now a miniature dry moat intervenes between the Annex and the line on the Plaza once occupied by the Palacio La Riva. This device, together with the removal of the entrance from the Plaza to a location around the corner on the Calle Freneria facing the junction with the Calle Polo de Medina (see Moneo’s site plan, above), would seem calculated to diminish the presence of the building in the city’s cathedral square, to withdraw it respectfully from the space of Ecclesia. I, myself, am not convinced that this improves on the sketch and I believe the development of the moat has turned it into a bit of an embarrassment.

The height of its retaining wall makes it distinctly uninviting and its excessively monumental steps confirm that its purpose is not to support any life of its own but to be solely given over to circulation, which then leads to a small, even mean little vestibule-cum-cafe, not entered frontally in case its troglodyte clientele should attempt to break out and sit in the sun, but from a side door in its south corner, where it is also afforded a grudging prospect back into the dismal moat. All this lenten apparatus of effacement is scarcely convincing when cafe tables beckon from beneath the trees and canvas lining the entire sun-drenched north side of the Plaza. And none of it seems consistent with Moneo’s important decision to rotate this front through a few critical degrees the better to confront the Cathedral down the length of the Plaza.

This might be a case of taking a useful precedent a step too far. We know from the Logrono City Hall project that Gunnar Asplund’s work is much admired by Moneo. Asplund’s plan for the chapel at the Woodlands Crematorium in Stockholm (1935-40) bears one of his signature ovoid forms that clearly suggested the shape of Moneo’s lecture hall here, which then appears to have developed this strong and unfortunate ripple effect out in the the Plaza, so at odds with his declared intent.

I decided to disregard the alignment of the demolished building because its oblique condition would not have provided the confrontation between the Cathedral and the new building that seemed to be so necessary.I wanted the façade of the new building to face the Cathedral head on: to look at it directly stating its difference. The two flanks of the Plaza were unrelated to it. The alignment of the new building established no orthogonal relationship whatsoever with the nearby façades, depending solely on paying its respects to the façade of the Cathedral. Ibid, p.443.

Given this purpose it might well have been better to hold on to the ideas he entertained in the sketch and put the front door on the Plaza in a candid assertion of a civic, secular presence in the cathedral square, and to bring the the space presently claimed by the moat back up to grade or a little above, for the erection of sculpture or a fountain, not unlike the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, say, or Stirling’s Sackler Museum at Harvard, though probably not centered in the facade and certainly not so combatively aggressive, to act as a foil of sorts to the serene blankness of Moneo’s smooth basement storey wall and to mediate between the wall and the Plaza. Moneo must have considered such possibilities, but perhaps they could be predicted to provoke some desperate fit of clerical anxiety and hence were denied him? But the moat remains a problem.

Moneo’s Plaza facade derives its absorbing interest from its accomplished orchestration of multiple layers, of depths, voids, transparencies and reflections. Layered building facades have been present among us for a very long time -- see, for example, the North African Roman theaters discussed below in connection with the present project, or the front of the eleventh century cathedral at Pisa shown in the section on San Jose City Hall (2005) -- but the idea of layered space as the agent giving formal structure to an entire architectural plan is a twentieth century concept derived from the the discoveries of the post-perspectival painters, from the Post-Impressionists, the Fauves and the Cubists, assembled and classified at the end of World War I by the painter, Amedee Ozenfant, and the painter-architect, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Le Corbusier, the Purists. This is an intricate story but here are a couple of markers for its beginning and end: Cezanne’s Mont Sainte Victoire of about 1904, a proto-Cubist landscape in three near equal layers. foreground, middleground and background laid one behind the other in shallow, non-perspectival space. Alongside it is Jeanneret-Le Corbusier’s Still Life of 1920, in which much is going on but what concerns us here is its emphatically layered structure which, as it happens, closely parallels that of Cezanne.

The forms in the painter’s still lifes migrated into the architect’s plans, their increased scale suggesting new imagery, and the layering from front to back and back to front informed the architect’s every building project, made readily apparent to the observer by the separation of the facade from the building’s columnar supporting structure -- still a revolutionary proposition in 1920 -- the shallow layer of space between the two becoming the generator of a continuous balcony or the frame for a view from a roof terrace. Here are two examples:

The Villa Cook, Boulogne-sur-Seine, 1926. The upper floor level best reveals the structure of the plan: slipped squares inscribed between party walls, the slippage producing shallow layers of space along the front and rear facades. Projecting balconies at both front and rear imply additional layers outside the facades.

Perhaps the most systematically striated section of Le Corbusier’s career, the Durand Housing Project in Oued-Ouchaia, Algeria, 1933-34, its stepped-back terraces facing north to protect the two storey living quarters of its apartment units from the North African sun.

This 1940 apartment building in Como, the Casa Giuliani Frigerio, is the complex and much discussed last work of Giuseppe Terragni, the architect of Como’s Casa del Fascio of 1936, which we reviewed earlier above. I include this apartment building here not so much for the dynamic properties of its composition -- the sense that we are looking at sliding parts -- as for the duality of this north facade, one layer appearing overlaid on the other, and for the apparent height of its attic storey, things of interest to Moneo.

Finally, there is is ample precedent for Moneo’s decision to rotate the Annex facade to confront the Cathedral across the Plaza. He is certainly familiar with the dramatically enforced facade rotation in Le Corbusier’s 1949 house for the eminent surgeon, Dr. Pedro Domingo Curutchet in La Plata, brought about by the fact that the street runs at almost 45 degrees to the party walls on the lot lines. Accommodating this condition, Le Corbusier ingeniously articulates the public and private functions of the building: the wedge of the facade houses the automobile/s, the entry shared by family and patients, and on the second floor Dr. Curutchet’s office and consulting room, while domestic life takes place in the raised cube at the rear of the site, its living room opening on to a shaded roof terrace with a view to the park from atop the consulting room.

Moneo’s rotation is far less pronounced but even so he executes it in two gentle, practically imperceptible stages: it’s to be a ‘facing’, not a ‘face -off’.

This Mezzanine plan also shows the bridge to the existing city hall building closely tied to the Annex main staircase. This modest little bridge proved to be quite as controversial as Alberto Noguerol’s proposal, and it didn’t get put in place until 2005.

Third floor plan, with its double height reception room overlooking the Plaza and creating the impression of a palazzo’s piano nobile supported on its basement storeys, and its floor level precisely corresponding to that of the adjacent Palacio Episcopal. This floor line also precisely divides the facade above grade into thirds: one third for the basement storeys whose width forms a double square; two thirds for the floors above, which form a square and carry it significantly higher than the Palacio Episcopal. Note the rich depth of facade that is achieved on these upper floors by the layered combinations of outside piers and balcony walls, piers and glazed railings, piers and pipe railings, piers and balcony floors, and inside piers, columns and glazing.

Section. The horizontal lines in the interior spaces of the section, the lecture room, the double height reception room on the piano nobile and the fourth floor office directly above it, denote the wooden panelling seen in the interior photos below.

Views of the lecture room and the piano nobile reception room.

The South Elevation on the Calle San Patricio. Note the ‘eyebrows’ protecting the windows from high angle summer sun

The North Elevation on the Calle Freneria, showing the entry to the Annex discretely removed from the front elevation to diminish the assertiveness of that facade on the Plaza, and placed, instead, opposite the entry to the Calle Polo de Medina. The mullioned windows are those of the W.C.s in the bathrooms stack and the tiny windows to their left afford a minimum of daylight to the fire stairs while preserving the mass of the north wall adjoining the entry. In the photo on the right, the building is seen from the Calle Freneria, its mezzanine balcony serving to open up the otherwise narrow view to the Plaza beyond.

The Annex entrance, an unassuming doorway greeting, not the Plaza del Cardenal Belluga but the modest Calle Polo de Medina. Out in the Plaza can be seen the dry moat discussed above, with its pathetic little chalk boards plaintively announcing the fare on offer in the basement café to an unmoved public with more enticing places to go. Beyond it is the northeast corner of City Hall, emerged into greater prominence on the Plaza by Moneo’s setting back of the Annex front, and then painted pink in a gesture seeking comity with the Palacio Episcopal next door.

We now come to the crucial Plaza facade, and composing this facade cost Moneo much effort. There are ten variations on the facade here but not one of them contemplates an entry opening to the Plaza.

Moneo tells us that the rich possibilities for the design of a layered and differentially divided facade were suggested to him by north African Roman amphitheaters, specifically the amphitheater at Sabratha on the Tripolitanian coast.

The possibility of giving these different divisions musical attributes was probably suggested by the work of Iannis Xenakis while employed in the office of Le Corbusier on the so-called ondulatoires, a varied width floor-to-ceiling glazing system using small panes overlapped in the greenhouse manner, originally proposed for the Heidi Weber Pavillion in Zurich (dropped with the adoption of the Brevet 2.26 meter cubic steel frame system developed with Jean Prouvé and completed posthumously in 1965) but first employed in the 1957-60 Dominican priory of Sainte-Marie-de-la-Tourette in the Eveux valley near Lyon, France. Xenakis, who conceptualized and executed the Phillips Pavilion for Le Corbusier’s Electronic Poem at the Brussels World Fair in 1958, was to become a prominent composer, widely recognized for pioneering the use of mathematical models in music and also for his important influence on the development of electronic and computer music.

Measured from the Plaza level the final scheme for the front occupies a 3 x 2 vertical rectangle and is a sophisticated composition of musical rhythms structured by two sizes of overlapping square, one derived from the facade itself and the other from the wider but lower bulk of the Annex behind it. The division of of these squares into halves and thirds reveals something of Moneo’s system of composition but by no means all.

This geometry ensures that the upper loggia rises significantly higher than the cornice of the neighboring Palacio Episcopal, reaching for the scale of the cathedral at the other end of the Plaza. Which, of course, may finally explain the purpose of the problematic moat: its attributes of retiring humility actually enable Moneo to reveal the presence of yet another storey, quietly augmenting the height of an already very tall and otherwise arrogant facade.

But, curiously, for all its compositional care and skilful musicality, its quality of construction and richness of effect, the Annex is still perceived by many conservative citizens as aloof and removed behind its enigmatic moat, alien to the Plaza. Moneo should never have dispensed with the door.

Be that as it may, his facade is much admired beyond Murcia and has been the source of inspiration for at least one other city hall annex, Dundee House, accommodating the administrative functions of Dundee City Council and designed by the Edinburgh firm of Reiach & Hall, Architects, to incorporate a former D.C. Thompson & Co. comics printing building, with nods to Arne Jacobsen, and to make maximum possible use of the limited and irregular space behind the building, with nods to Alvar Aalto.

The remaining component of Moneo’s commision was a design for the renovation of the Plaza. He cleared the space of its traffic lanes and its decorative central island and fountain, and employed travertine paving to frame and, in combination with curvilinear drainage gratings, to articulate a new, unified and space-expanding surface of basalt block, accessible to service vehicles but chiefly given over to pedestrian uses. And he planted a row of trees in parallel with each row of non-institutional buildings.

Travertine paving forms a sidewalk along the café-lined north wall of the Plaza, turns south to collect the four calles converging around the Annex on its west end, and then turns east and narrows to a footpath width against the face of the Palacio Episcopal. A minimal set of travertine radii, some a little wider and more important than others, divide the area within this frame into unequal segments, bringing the three institutional protagonists on its perimeter to a common, if eccentric, meeting point, located with exquisite secular deference, midway on a line extended out from the nave of the cathedral to the central archway of the Palacio Episcopal. No diagram of forces could be more electrifying in its effect, only heightened by the drainage gratings, rippling out across the surface of the Plaza like radio waves.

The idea for the surface of the Plaza was probably prompted by something like Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome. But what an inspired transformation!

With these simple means, two paving materials, shaped drainage gratings and a few judiciously placed trees, Moneo has made an extraordinarily vibrant Plaza.

The following photos record some of the public life sustained by the new space.

Whatever the reservations that may be held in regard to the Annex, no one can doubt that Moneo’s new Plaza del Cardenal Belluga serves the city of Murcia prodigiously well.