For the evening of March 16, the Center for Architecture in New York had planned a much-anticipated public conversation between architect Rafael Viñoly and Randy Cohen, the humorist and host of popular radio show Person Place Thing. It wasn’t meant to be. Just two weeks earlier, the architect would die of an aneurysm at a New York hospital. The event, however, was not canceled. Cohen, who had discussed the interview’s details with Rafael just a couple of days before his sudden passing, ended up interviewing the architect’s youngest son, Roman.
A director at Rafael Viñoly Architects, which will continue its international practice, Roman recounted how six years ago, the mayor of Florence publicly praised the Viñoly-designed Aeropuerto de Carrasco in Montevideo and suggested that it could become a model for the Italian city’s own new airport. The firm responded with a speculative project, which it then spent several years refining. The proposal was remarkable for a vineyard over its roof with the rationale that the new terminal should be visible from the Duomo. Over the last two years, the firm eagerly anticipated getting the contract. According to Roman, the word finally came the day after Rafael died. Just before the interview, it was confirmed by the officials in Florence that the project is going ahead.
As the two discussed Rafael’s character, his training both as a progressive architect and classical pianist, as well as his most emblematic works, I mentally flipped through many of my own personal encounters with Rafael. My first job in New York after graduation, 25 years ago, was at his office. The stint lasted just a year, but I probably spent two years’ worth of regular working hours there. During that time, at most, we exchanged several phrases. I mostly observed and listened.
What I understood is that in his work he nurtured his deeply personal ideas; he had a strong singular vision of the future and every project was a way to bring it closer to realization. Decisions had to come from him personally. To him, his work was both personal and missionary. Everyone else assisted him in that task. Yet, he would not admit he had or wanted to have a particular visual style; it was more about following what can be called intuition. As I transitioned from practicing architecture to becoming a curator and critic, I reengaged with him — we discussed projects, planned exhibitions and books, shared contacts, and twice — in 2007 and 2008 — we sat down for insightful conversations.
Ask architects and critics to talk about Viñoly’s biggest achievements and you will hear references to his stunning buildings in Tokyo, London, Amsterdam, Abu Dhabi, and, of course, New York, where he built dozens of projects in all five boroughs. But what was one project that he considered a defining moment in his career? “I think it was the Argentina Color Television Center in Buenos Aires ,” he told me. “I was in my early thirties and in control of everything. The building process was so unique. We started construction without really knowing what we were doing, and that teaches you a great deal.” He went on, “We built the project the way I think all buildings should be made — as a sort of improvisation on a set of working drawings. We just went to the site and told the contractor, ‘Do it from here to there.’ We improvised. That’s what gave the building its freshness.”
Ever since he built his own house in Buenos Aires (1972) – which despite its domestic scale, was formed as two towers connected by a bridge – and the futuristic branch offices of the Bank of the City of Buenos Aires in the late 1960s to early 1970s, his work was influenced by the radical visions of Archigram and the Metabolist movement and his fondness for high-tech architecture, as well his fascination with sailing. His elegant, although occasionally grotesque buildings, tend to expose their steel framework, are extensively glazed, and are manifested in forms distinguished by their curves, arches, domes, cantilevers, and bridges. Louis Kahn’s Kimbel Museum (1972) was his favorite building.
Rafael Viñoly was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1944 to a math teacher mother and a father, Román Viñoly Barreto, who was an award-winning film and theatre director and playwright. The family moved to Buenos Aires when he was five. At the age of 20, while still a student, Rafael became a founding partner of “Estudio de Arquitectura Manteola-Petchersky-Sánchez Gómez-Santos-Solsona-Viñoly” in Buenos Aires. The practice quickly established itself as one of the most productive and successful architectural firms in South America. Viñoly received a Diploma in Architecture from the University of Buenos Aires in 1968 and a Master of Architecture from the School of Architecture and Urbanism the following year. In 1979, he left Argentina, which by then had become a military dictatorship. He immigrated to the United States with his wife, Diana, a decorator who worked on some of Viñoly’s projects, and their three sons. After initially teachingat Harvard and working as a developer, he acquired his license and opened his own practice in 1983 in New York.
Early buildings of note include the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (1988) in Manhattan and the Lehman College Physical Education Facility (1994) in the Bronx, both for the City University of New York. But it was his Tokyo International Forum, an international competition win of 1989, that brought the firm instant acclaim. The project was selected from a pool of 395 anonymous entries submitted by architects from 50 countries.
This stunning civic complex, completed in 1996, features a lobby shaped like an enormous eye enclosed in glass, with a dramatic 230-foot-metre truss system of arched beams. The 23,000-tonne truss is supported by only two elegant columns, each just over one metre in diameter. They are so far apart — more than 180 metres — that you hardly ever see them in one plane of sight. It makes the entire structure, from which two curved glass curtain wall façades are draped, seem to float.
The building’s geometry has a story. I asked Rafael if it was true that its form originated from the Pan Am logo. “Yes,” he said. “I quit the project because I couldn’t come up with any good ideas and I went to Paris on a Pan Am flight to take a break. And when they started serving dinner, I saw this logotype on my napkin: these ellipses inscribed in a circle. What was incredibly difficult at that time is that I couldn’t understand how to reconcile the curving of the rail tracks with the very rigid geometry of the octagonal street pattern adjacent to the site. So, when I saw that logo, everything just fell into place so perfectly. Yes, it was just like that. I landed in Paris and took the plane back to finish the project.”
As cities around the world were adding new high-rises to their skylines, Rafael Viñoly Architects would become known for its towers: Jongno Tower in Seoul (1999), Vdara Hotel & Spa at CityCenter in Las Vegas (2009), 20 Fenchurch Street – the so-called Walkie-Talkie – in London (2014), 432 Park Avenue in New York (2016), NEMA Chicago (2019), and the unbuilt World Cultural Center (2002-03), which reimagined the World Trade Center with two open latticework towers holding observation platforms and cultural venues to restore the visual presence of the original Twin Towers.
With these audacious projects, I asked Rafael to share his philosophy about tall buildings. “I like to compare tall buildings to bridges,” he said, “because to me they represent infrastructure and a way of inventing new types of accessible public space. Imagine bridges and terraces in the sky! It is so essential in our cities to celebrate bird’s eye views. It is such a memorable, unique, and absolutely essential experience in the 21st-century metropolis.”
Apart from the Tokyo International Forum, my favourite project by Rafael is in Chicago – the University of Chicago Booth School of Business (2004). The international competition–winning scheme constitutes a well-balanced and sensitive composition of terraces, setbacks, and deep cantilevers that effectively break down the building’s bulk, evoking a sense of the horizontality and lightness of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House situated directly across the street. Inside, a six-storey glass atrium that sinks a couple of floors below street level is gracefully held up by four main structural columns. They simultaneously resemble tree branches and Gothic vaults — a direct reference to the nearby Rockefeller Chapel and other structures designed in the Collegiate Gothic style throughout the university campus. Evoking a see-through cathedral of knowledge, the arches are built of tubular steel and are utilized to channel rainwater into a special reservoir.
What qualities or sensations did the architect want people to experience in his architecture? “First,” he told me, “I do believe in evolution. If you did a house one way, there must be another way of doing it better. And second, it always comes back to one single aesthetic phenomenon, which is control over proportions. If you get it right, you feel extraordinarily secure. This dimension is timeless, and whether you go to the pyramids or the Kimbell Museum, you feel it. That’s what makes great architecture: the subtleties.” Did he care about what was going to happen to his practice when he was no longer around? “I do care. But to be perfectly frank, it is something for other people to figure out. What I can assure you is that we have a fantastic team of people here.”
The evening with Roman Viñoly was coming to a close. He concluded by sharing a story about one of his father’s final projects — designing a concert grand piano with a curved keyboard.It was a collaboration with Chris Maene, the founder of a family-run piano-building factory in Belgium. Rafael thought that a curved keyboard would make the piano ergonomically more comfortable to play. It is true, a traditional piano keyboard is challenging for a pianist to cover without adjusting their posture. Rafael designed the radius of his keyboard’s curve to match the natural arc of a pianist’s arms, which makes playing across all registers more comfortable. The Maene-Viñoly piano debuted at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland last summer in the presence of Rafael and his family. Roman argued that this new configuration elevates the instrument’s more nuanced sound capacity. Of course, there is nothing more subjective than the appreciation of music.
As it is with architecture — which seems to be more nuanced, even humanistic, when curves are eloquently introduced. The case in point is Rafael’s Laguna Garzón Bridge (2015) in Uruguay. Its unusual circular road deck slows traffic just so drivers and pedestrians would have a chance to appreciate panoramic views of the beautiful coastal landscape of Rafael’s birth country.
Vladimir Belogolovsky pays homage to Rafael Viñoly (1944-2023), an architect of eloquent curves whose bold urban gestures celebrated bird’s-eye views