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Rafael Viñoly, architect of the Tokyo Forum and London’s “Walkie-Talkie”, dies at 78


Rafael Viñoly, an architect born in Uruguay who embraced organic curves and luminous expanses in projects such as the Tokyo International Forum and stamped his mark on the New York skyline with his super skinny tower at 432 Park Avenue, died March 2 in a New York hospital. He was 78 years old.

Mr. Viñoly had an aneurysm, his son, Román, said.

Mr. Viñoly, who grew up in Argentina, began his career in the late 1960s with a team commissioned for institutional projects in Buenos Aires, including a union headquarters and an annex to the parliamentary complex. They were starting their biggest venture to date – the 50,000-seat Mendoza Stadium (now Malvinas Argentinas Stadium) and broadcast center for the 1978 World Cup soccer tournament – ​​when a military dictatorship overthrew the government elected by Isabel Perón in a coup in 1976.

For the junta, the World Cup was seen as an opportunity to gain international legitimacy despite mounting evidence of “dirty war” atrocities, including detained or “disappeared” left-wing opponents. Mr. Viñoly was now responsible to the military leadership of the site’s competition.

Just before the World Cup, Mr. Viñoly’s personal library was searched by the authorities. He and his family felt they were no longer safe and left the country. Mr. Viñoly first held a visiting lectureship at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, then moved permanently to New York in 1979.

Mr Viñoly said his preference for architectural “openness” was a response to the paranoia and forced obedience he saw under the junta. A feature of his designs is what he called a “new type of civil space” of large halls and spaces. “You can’t avoid seeing other people,” he said. “There are no barriers.”

Mr. Viñoly has called himself a disciple of the “unglamorous” side of architecture by emphasizing function and practicality over more embellished architectural statements.

“One of the problems I see in architecture today is that you’re mesmerized by this ‘wow’ factor,” he said. “It’s something that passes in 15 seconds.”

“I strongly believe in the notion of restraint… but architecture is not fashionable,” he added.

However, not everything went without criticism. He led a design team that was a finalist in the competition to rebuild the World Trade Center site in New York. The concept of the two-spire team, encased in latticework like steel skeletons, was deemed by some to be too dark and reminiscent of the twin towers destroyed in the September 11, 2001 attacks.

In London, his round design for 20 Fenchurch Street was quickly dubbed the “walkie-talkie” for its handset-like swoop. “It feels bloated, not elegant,” complained architecture critic Rowan Moore in the Guardian. Summer sunlight on the 38-story building can also bake the streets below – a similar problem that first plagued Mr. Viñoly’s Las Vegas hotel and spa, the Vdara, which amplified the rays of the sun in a sizzling forbidden zone.

Although Mr. Viñoly has not had the public recognition of some peers, such as IM Pei or Frank Gehry, his work has reshaped cityscapes seen by tens of millions of people every day.

The 197-foot wall of laminated glass and curved roofline of the Tokyo International Forum, which opened in 1997, are as much a part of the fabric of the city as the towering colonnades of New York’s Lincoln Center, where Mr. Viñoly designed the Jazz at Lincoln. Central hall. Across Central Park, its 432 Park Avenue looms like an obelisk nearly 1,400 feet.

Any large project “only becomes human when people make it human,” Viñoly told Newsweek in 1997. “It’s not something the architect can decide. It’s something that has to happen on its own. »

Mr. Viñoly has had a semi-nerdy demeanor with an affinity for well-worn loafers and a tendency to wear multiple glasses – sometimes as many as four – with a few balanced on his head or hanging from a string around his neck.

He once described his normal working day as spending the morning at the piano (he was an accomplished young pianist and once considered a career in music), then walking to the office; a late dinner – perhaps cooked by their chef – then watch some TV with his wife.

“I’m wearing these gray sweatpants that are 35 or 40 years old,” he told The New York Times. “They are like a part of my skin. I don’t wash them too much or they will fall apart.

Yet he was also known for demanding a relentless work schedule in times of crisis.

During the Tokyo International Forum design competition, Viñoly hit a mental hurdle on how to integrate the arch of the train tracks with the straight-line geometry of the surrounding streets. He decides to take a break with his wife in Paris. During the flight, he noticed the curved latitude lines of the Pan Am logo on either side of the equator. This solved his problem: parabola-like sweeps for the tracks.

He immediately returned from New York for round-the-clock reviews with his team.

“His concern was that some schools were losing the know-how and technical knowledge and that the architecture was too conceptual,” said Amir Kriper, a Boston-based architect who was born in Uruguay and has closely followed Ms. Viñoly. “His approach was much more practical and believed that the role of the architect was to provide an interesting architectural solution.”

Other landmark projects have dotted the globe: the cello-shaped Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia; the angular Cleveland Museum of Art; the New York University campus in Abu Dhabi and Carrasco Airport near Montevideo, Uruguay rendered like a flying saucer about to take off.

In the Washington area, his name is attached to sites such as the biomedical research campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and the condominium development project known as Wharf Parcel 9. ( His proposal for a resigning position at the Kennedy Center was accepted in 2004 and later shelved.)

Mr. Viñoly could seem more perplexed when he had no blank canvas.

He struggled to understand the collective nostalgia for the moody chimneys and towering brick turbine chambers of London’s Battersea Power Station, a former coal-fired goliath on the Thames. Preservations had won the battle to keep the site largely intact.

A master plan he proposed created a commercial and retail complex. In Mr Viñoly’s spin on the factory’s polluting past, he added plans for a zero carbon footprint. In a rare about-face, Mr Viñoly appeared exhausted by London’s bickering over the project and eventually walked away – frustrated with affection for the old smoke belcher.

“It’s like preserving Dracula, in a way,” he said.

Rafael Viñoly Beceiro was born June 1, 1944, in Montevideo, Uruguay, and the family moved when he was young to Buenos Aires, where his mother was a math teacher and his father a film and theater director.

Mr. Viñoly graduated in 1969 from the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism of the University of Buenos Aires and then formed an architectural firm with five partners.

His career in Argentina ended in upheaval. While at university, a military coup in 1966 overthrew the government and soldiers stormed the campus. This regime fell in 1973, bringing in the populist administrations of Juan Perón and then his widow Isabel until they were ousted by the military in 1976.

“The World Trade Center project made me rehash all those things that happened 30 years ago in a very powerful way,” he told the New York Times in 2003, returning to Argentina. .

Besides his son Román, director of the architectural firm founded by his father, survivors include Mr. Viñoly’s wife, Diana; step-sons Nicolás and Lucas; a brother; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Viñoly has often established links between his two passions, music and architecture. He said he could listen to a Bach fugue or a Thelonious Monk jazz arrangement and always find something new.

“That’s what I think good architecture is,” he said. “It’s like good music.”

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