From time to time, amazed by yet another display of out-of-control ego or calculating careerism, I like to think about my friends Luis Mansilla and Emilio Tuñón, who achieved so much without any of the baggage that seems to go with being a successful architect today. Luis, who died on February 22, exemplified in particular a quiet dedication to the vocation of being an architect. He was passionate about his work and lived a life in architecture to the fullest. But to say, in the manner of American self-help books, that he had a good “work/life balance” would trivialize both.
He met his wife, Carmen Pinart, at the Spanish Academy in Rome in the early 1980s when they were both in residence: she as a painter and he, an architect. Their house in Madrid was filled with her delicate paintings of their two daughters. The office he shared with Tuñón also had a family atmosphere. They worked hard, very hard. But there were also many trips, studio dinners, and an endless flow of conversation over the work they made together.
That Mansilla + Tuñón are not better known in this country says more about the state of American architecture than about their work: 20 years of practice, a dozen definitive buildings, a string of brilliant competition victories and important prizes, including the Mies van der Rohe Award in 2007 given every two years by the European Union for the best building completed in Europe for MUSAC, a contemporary art museum in León.
Prior to forming their own practice, Luis and Emilio worked together in the office of Rafael Moneo, which is where I first met them, almost 30 years ago. Mansilla + Tuñón’s work shares with Moneo’s a sense of gravity, clarity of detail, and strong material presence. But their work departs from their mentor’s in its abstraction, its playful diagrammatic character, and in the architects’ recent fascination with serial repetition. They came into their own with the Auditorium and later the MUSAC. These two buildings chart this passage from a figural response to context to an abstract field-like strategy of aggregation. Their recent work had a kind of unlabored immediacy, a distinctive mix of gravity and play, visible in winning competition projects for the Soria Environmental City, the Vega Baja Museum in Toledo, and the recently completed Town Hall in Lalin. In this age of global practice, Luis and Emilio preferred to work close to home, where they could control the process of construction. But I suspect there was also something else at work here—a simple reluctance to deny themselves the pleasure of watching buildings take shape.
In 2008, I invited Luis and Emilio to come to Princeton to teach, fully confident in their vocation as teachers as much as in their abilities as practitioners. They had taught in the United States before, but I believe they found the intellectual atmosphere at Princeton congenial, despite the long delays that Luis had to endure entering the country. It turned out that Luis shared a name with someone on a terrorist watch list. This resulted in a minimum four-hour delay with every trip to the airport, during which he developed a friendly relationship with the immigration agent.
That family atmosphere extended to the studios at Princeton, with trips to Falling Water, to Chicago and the Farnsworth House, and elsewhere—during which it was clear that Luis and Emilio very much wanted to see the architecture and the students were just along for the ride. Those students learned a lot from Luis’ and Emilio’s passion for architecture. And in Spain, it was a matter of showing the students their own work, and their city, believing intensely that you understand a building better when you understand its place. Luis was such a good teacher precisely because he was genuinely interested in what he was teaching.
Luis died without warning, in Barcelona. He and Emilio were there to present a book of the last writings of Enric Miralles, another talented architect who died too young. After the presentation there was a long Spanish dinner and Luis returned to his hotel, where he suffered a massive heart attack. Looking back, his words that night take on a special poignancy. Speaking of Miralles’ work, and its power over a generation of architects, he said: “I am beginning to think that, in reality, space is not a significant part of our preoccupations in life. Only time is, that spills and slips through our fingers when we try to catch it.” And so Luis has now slipped through our fingers—abruptly so, which was uncharacteristic of him. The field has lost a figure of great promise. We will remember him for his optimism, his generosity, his intelligence, and his gentle passion for the art of architecture.