September 16, 2011 10:05 pm

Rootless ambition

Architect Rafael Viñoly reflects on his past career and current projects

Rafael Viñoly’s New York architecture offices sit behind a stark arcade of brick arches, in a dense industrial building that looks as solid and forbidding as anything from Byzantium. And from this cliff of brick and industrial chic he has carved for himself a kind of den. Semi-submerged, with a low ceiling, some 1970s leather sofas and the lacquered black charisma of a Steingraeber & Söhne grand piano, it is a quiet space with its own door to the street, a world within a world. Upstairs is all lofty white walls, cast-iron columns and the hum and tap of young architects picking away at their keyboards.

I’ve had to bring my interview forward a couple of days because Viñoly, it transpires, is going to go off, alone, on a boat, for a few days – he won’t say where. Frankly, I’m not surprised. Viñoly seems to be one of the busiest architects in the world. He is currently masterplanning the gargantuan, by now nearly mythical Battersea Power Station site in London. He is also building a City skyscraper – colloquially known as the Walkie Talkie – and has just completed Firstsite, a large arts centre in Colchester, Essex, another building that has acquired an unwelcome nickname: “The Golden Banana”.

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And that’s just England. He is also about to unveil designs for one of the tallest skyscrapers in New York and is working on the redevelopment of Brooklyn’s vast Domino Sugar works, a scheme that is to New York what Battersea is to London.

Despite the huge workload, and the high profile of the buildings, I find him in a restrained mood. “The overall situation,” he shakes his head, “is such a mess, it’s frightening. I’m going to be alone in the middle of the ocean for six days. To reflect.” But if that makes him sound miserable, he’s not. Just reflective.

I’ve known Viñoly for a long time but have only ever concentrated on his latest thing, never digging into his past. Now I want to go all the way back. “Well,” he says, “as this is turning into a psychotherapy session, I’d better settle in.” And, in his charcoal grey jacket, jeans and turtle-neck, he almost melts into the black sofa.

“It’s the typical immigrant experience. I was born in Uruguay and the family moved to Argentina [when he was a child]. It was 100 miles or so but in the 1950s it was 100 light years.” His father was a theatre director, then director of the opera house in Montevideo, and they left for the greater opportunities over the border, the bigger city. “I came from that world, a world of spectacle and music but I guess you could say I suffered a ‘vocational crisis’. I think I reacted against the instability of that world. Architecture offered a ‘prestigious’ profession,” he says, arching his eyebrows. He doesn’t dwell on the musical career he abandoned, but he is a concert-standard pianist who still plays for pleasure.

Once he decided to become an architect, he didn’t waste any time. “I was working already when I was 18,” he tells me. “We created an office [while he was studying in Buenos Aires] that became a fairly successful operation. In a typically ‘60s kind of way we just decided to go and build. For 10 or 15 years I was so concentrated on the work that I almost didn’t notice the politics. Then, suddenly, what had been repression became war, completely brutal. Can you imagine this? I buried my library in the garden, wrapped in plastic bags to keep it from the police.”

The Firstsite building in Colchester

The Firstsite building in Colchester

As the country lurched towards military dictatorship, he left, first for Europe, then for the US, where he settled in the 1970s. It must, I say, have been tough to start over. “I had a degree of arrogance. I thought I could do anything. I didn’t know how I’d become an architect so I tried to become a developer – but I didn’t have any money so I got two contacts involved – and, at the time, everyone was selling everything cheap, so we built two towers.” He says this as if it were perfectly straightforward.

“Later I saw that Japan was booming and my friend [architect] Fumihiko Maki suggested we enter a competition for the Tokyo Forum – which we won. If the US was like Mars to me after Argentina, Japan was ...” he pauses “... beyond the solar system. But the transplantation to a place in which you really have no idea what’s going on is an amazing education.” The Tokyo Forum, a glass-roofed megastructure in the heart of the city, grabbed the world’s attention. “It became a global practice, which is one that doesn’t have a root – which, as I never did, suited me fine.”

I turn to his two biggest schemes, Battersea and the Domino refinery, and I can’t help asking whether he wouldn’t rather just demolish the old buildings and start again. “Honestly?” he asks. “I think they both could be disposed of – they swallow half the site. Battersea is the better building, but at the Domino the quality of the heritage building is non-existent and what the buildings do to a forward-looking plan is enormously detrimental. Preservation isn’t about preserving everything but about what you preserve things as. What is the value of a monument? It is in creating familiarity in navigating the city.”

Is that what he expects of the Walkie Talkie? “That came out of the blue,” he says. “I had four plans and presented three, keeping one behind the door. Mike Hussey [then managing director of developer Land Securities] spotted it and said, ‘How about this one?’”

There followed a long planning process, a public enquiry and the 2008 financial meltdown but the building is at last under construction. Flaring outwards to the top – which allows it a narrower footprint and protects some historic views – it is set to be a striking, if not universally liked, addition to the City’s skyline. Is he, after all that, happy with the plans? “I thought they’d never go for it, that it would be too much. But to have succeeded in maintaining that shape is the kind of thing that gives you a reason to wake up in the mornings.”

The other job that is keeping him occupied is a house he’s building for himself in the hills near Montevideo. “It’s a psychological re-tracing,” he says. “It’s about anchoring yourself in a place in which you have absolutely primitive memories. It’s so personal, though, I don’t want to show it or publish it.” He admits that it has confirmed his overriding respect for the ability to proportion correctly. “The more you concentrate on sizes and the relationship between spaces, the less architecture becomes about vocabulary.”

We go on to talking about the city, then about critics and newspapers. “Architecture,” Viñoly says, grinning, “is media too. But it is the only one you can’t switch off.”

Colchester’s Firstsite opens on September 25 www.firstsite.uk.net

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