Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Vale Rafael Viñoly—museum ‘starchitect’

Rafael Viñoly at the Tokyo International Forum (completed 1996), the building that made his international reputation as an architect. Rafael Viñoly Architects.

Louise Jebb, Rafael Viñoly—museum ‘starchitect’ who believed in experience over aesthetics—has died, aged 78, The Art Newspaper, 7 March 2023

Uruguayan-born architect had an acute understanding of the visual arts and produced prize-winning buildings.

Rafael Viñoly, one of the most admired architects of his generation and creator of landmark buildings around the world, has died, aged 78.

The Uruguayan-born, New York-based designer was best known for two headline-making structures: 20 Fenchurch Street, London, nicknamed the “Walkie-Talkie” for its distinctive, flared outline (completed 2014), and 432 Park Avenue (completed 2015), the first and most elegant of the super-tall, ultra-thin residential skyscrapers that have sprung up across midtown Manhattan in a glass-and-aluminium, 21st-century take on the status-symbol towers of 14th-century San Gimignano. Viñoly was also the subject of intense public scrutiny for a visionary but unbuilt scheme created with Frederic Schwartz and the Think Team: a 2003 proposal—soaring lattice-patterned structures to fill the space once occupied by the Twin Towers—for the competition to rebuild the site of the World Trade Center destroyed in the 2001 terrorist attack on New York.

Headline-making: Viñoly’s 342 Park Avenue, New York City, and 20 Fenchurch Street, London
Rafael Viñoly Architects

Viñoly’s works for the world of art and culture include the Kimmel Center for Performing Arts, Philadelphia (completed 2001, a vast barrel-vaulted statement in steel and glass, housing two auditoriums); the Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, North Carolina (2005, a pentagram of pavilions on a wooded knoll); the Brooklyn Children’s Museum (2005, low-slung, L-shaped and coated in yellow ceramic tiles); the substantial extension and renovation of the Cleveland Museum of Art (2004-12); and the new Fortabat Collection building (2008) in Buenos Aires, to house the collection of Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat. That collection includes JMW Turner’s Juliet and her Nurse (1836)—which set a record for art at auction of $6.4m plus commission when sold at Sotheby Parke Bernet by Flora Whitney Miller (with some of the proceeds going to the Whitney Museum) in 1980—and Andy Warhol’s 1980 Portrait of Mrs. Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat. In New York he designed a new home for Jazz at Lincoln Center (2004), on the fifth floor of Time Warner Center, with an almost outrageously expansive view from one of its auditoriums through a 50ft-high glass wall across Columbus Circle to Central Park.

Viñoly’s Firstsite visual arts centre, Colchester (completed 2011), winner of the 2021 Art Fund Museum of the Year prize. Photograph: Mark Atkins.

In Britain, Viñoly’s museum work includes the gold-skinned crescent-shaped Firstsite visual arts centre, in Colchester (completed 2011), winner of the 2021 Art Fund Museum of the Year prize. The prize judges commended FirstSite as an “outstanding example of innovation and integrity”. “At their core is powerful, engaged contemporary art, housed in a gallery that gives space for everyone,” the Art Fund’s director and chair of the judging panel, Jenny Waldman, said, “from artists to NHS staff to local families and refugee groups.”

Viñoly designed the Curve Theatre, in Leicester (2008), a near-transparent structure with fluid links between front of stage, backstage and its auditoriums, and created the 2016 masterplan for the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station, one of the best-loved landmarks of London’s built heritage, now in its third phase, where the Giles Gilbert Scott power station has been remodelled by Wilkinson Eyre, with rippling avenues of apartment blocks designed by Frank Gehry (Prospect Park, completed 2022) and Foster + Partners (The Skyline).

Viñoly had an acute sense of the importance of the visual arts. In his practice’s head office in Manhattan, a stone’s throw from Brooklyn Bridge, he hung reproductions of works by Diego Velazquez and Rembrandt van Rijn—surroundings designed to make his team more cultivated by osmosis.

An admirer of Louis Kahn

As an architect he cared less in his buildings for displays of personal style or visual effects and more for the successful solution of an architectural problem. In an era when every “starchitect” worth the name was chasing glamorous museum commissions, Viñoly was just as happy to be recognised for his work with laboratories, hospitals and universities. The architects he most admired included, historically, Andrea Palladio, and in the modern era Oscar Niemeyer, creator of Brasilia, and the minimalist master Mies van der Rohe, whose Seagram Building (completed 1958) was Viñoly’s favourite in New York. But the forebear whose buildings appeared to have moved him the most was the Philadelphian magus Louis Kahn.

The experience has nothing to do with what you see. It is about what you feel, and that is what makes great architecture—the subtleties

Rafael Viñoly

In a 2021 interview with the pianist Kirill Gerstein, Viñoly spoke about Kahn’s celebrated Salk Institute building in La Jolla, California (1962-65), founded by Jonas Salk, the celebrated developer of a successful polio vaccine. First, Viñoly noted, the Salk Institute is a great laboratory—one where ground-breaking research in molecular biology is still done 60 years on. The acid functional test. But, at the end, he said, “it does one thing. You walk [between the two embracing wings] overlooking the ocean. All of a sudden you feel you are good. You feel somehow that something has touched you that has changed the plane of the experience. Being elevated. It’s like late Rembrandt.” He goes on to describe his experience of visiting Rembrandt: The Late Works (2014-15) at the National Gallery, in London. “An unbelievable show. I went around like 16 times … what you see—the location, the societal environment, and whatever kind of stylistic or critical positioning you make—is overcome by something that conveys the sense of transcendence.”

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Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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