A Conversation With Rafael Viñoly

On Friday January 24, Gotham Gazette held an online chat with architect Rafael Viñoly, a member of the Think team, which created three designs for the World Trade Center site:

Gotham Gazette:
Welcome everyone, and thanks for coming. Today we are talking to architect Rafael Viñoly, part of the THINK team, designers of three new plans for Ground Zero.

GG:
Good afternoon, Mr Viñoly.

Viñoly:
Good afternoon

GG:
Mr. Viñoly, in designing for Ground Zero, you worked with architects that are normally competitors. How did you join the Think team?

Viñoly:
We started working together as part of the design study that was organized by the New York Times Magazine. When the request for qualifications was issued by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation we thought that it was important to maintain the same kind of approach as we had developed with Fred Schwartz. Then we invited Shigeru Ban from Japan to join us because he is not only a great architect, but he would give us a different perspective on the problem. Shigeru also has a great deal of experience in the design of memorial spaces and the planning implications of that kind of program.

GG:
Are you saying - other than Mr. Ban - that editors of the Times magazine in effect created the Think team?

Viñoly:
No, we are not saying that. Through that project we had the opportunity to meet and develop a relationship that was enlarged and complemented by other collaborators.

GG:
Your team, Think, designed three different plans for Ground Zero. You were the only firm to create more than one plan. Why three?

Viñoly:
We were interested in defining the kind of appropriate budget for investment in the public realm that the project required. In researching that we felt that it was important to exemplify three different levels of budget for that investment. The three designs corresponded to an incremental scale of capital investment. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation design review commitee was interested in developing further some of those ideas. We had a preference for the Cultural towers because we do think that the investment on the public realm should be significant and that would be up front in the development process.

GG:
Which plans are the cheapest, middle and most expensive? Do you have specific price tags for them?

Viñoly:
The least expensive is the Sky Park and the medium level cost was the Great Hall. The price for those public spaces ranges from 300 million to 1 billion dollars.

GG:
So the World Cultural Center is the most expensive?

Viñoly:
It is the largest public space and consequently represents the largest investment in the public realm, which is different than saying that it is the most expensive.

GG:
Are the plans mutually exclusive, or can they be incorporated together?

Viñoly:
No, they can not be merged. They are completely different ideas about the site utilization, the phasing strategy and the implications in the marketability of the commercial space.

GG:
Please take us briefly through the details of each plan, beginning with the SkyPark.

Viñoly:
The sky plan is a 12 acre public space that ramps up from the corner of Church and Fulton creating a sort of roof terrace that culminates on a great lawn overlooking the Hudson river. Under this roof cultural facilities, office space and the transportation center occur. Three towers emerging from this platform complete the total of the 7 million square feet of office space.

GG:
Andrew Oliff asks, "Of all the 9 plans, your Sky Park office tower design is the best. I like the simple, dignified Towers evocative of the Twin Towers externally without simply duplicating them, and your commitment to both height and functionality as office towers which reaffirms what was lost on 9/11. Would you be open to modifications of that design which would help restore a Twin Tower skyline presence that so many long for?"

Viñoly:
As to Mr. Oliff's question, no plan could be considered final at this point and that of course we are totally open to changes.

Viñoly:
The Great Room is a large covered public plaza surrounded by buildings that look into it. A large very tall building on the Deutsche Bank site completes the program.

Viñoly:
The World Cultural Center is configured by two lattice work open structures that will be occupied by different buildings designed by different architects that will house the cultural component of the program. The office components are divide into nine sites that are normative office buildings designed over time that are not encumbered by additional functions but the specific of office space and on street retail frontage.

GG:
You have described the third plan, the World Cultural Center as being inspired by the Eiffel Tower – it is largely open, with several enclosed cultural spaces, such as an amphitheater and a museum, at different heights. What would the actual experience be like for a visitor?

GG:
For instance, would they arrive by elevator?

Viñoly:
The idea is that you would go to these buildings occasionally rather than with a schedule. That you would take a large elevator, sort of a vopporeto in Venice where you go from cultural building to cultural building looking at the city. The view of the city from above is a totally essential part of the New York experience and we don't think that this should be the prerogative of the private office space or just another very expensive restaurant. Accessing the high levels of this structure to enjoy a panoramic view from a cultural space should be part of the public domain. The cultural infrastructure of the city has now the chance to define its skyline.

GG:
For those of us who haven't been to Venice, what is a vopporeto?

Viñoly:
It is a small vessel that takes you through the canals as if you were in a sort of living room. Inexpensive and fun. I hope you can get there it is a great place to visit.

GG:
This week, it was reported that the team led by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill withdrew their design for Ground Zero. What was your reaction when you found out?

Viñoly:
I assume they should have a good reason for it.

GG:
On Tuesday, the New York Times editorial page endorsed Daniel Libeskind’s design for Ground Zero. Were you surprised to see this kind of specific support for one plan?

Viñoly:
I think they also should have their reasons for that. It is difficult to understand these projects without an in depth analysis, and the information provided was not really complete.

GG:
Provided by whom?

Viñoly:
The material provided by us in the time and space we had to explain it.

GG:
How do you think press coverage and public opinion will affect rebuilding officials’ decisions?

Viñoly:
I think this is a very difficult problem that requires a great deal of analysis of each proposal. I believe that the public input is important although it is difficult to say how representative these polls are.

GG:
Do you share the criticisms of the recent public hearings?

Viñoly:
I don't share the criticism about the process itself because I don't know how I would have done it myself. A lot of criticism is based on the frustration to deal with an incredibly difficult problem in the time that requires to understand it and act upon it.

GG:
Tal Barzilai asks, "Why does there have to be a promenade over West St when people can just use the bridges that existed for a while?"

Viñoly:
I think the promenade would be a great addition to the area because it would make it more user friendly and would contribute to linking Battery Park City to the rest of lower Manhattan area.

GG:
At the January 16 Architectural League forum where you were a panelist, architect Charles Gwathmey called on developers to become as engaged as architects have been in building something great at Ground Zero. Do you think this will happen?

GG:
And how can developers do this?

Viñoly:
I am sure that the industry is all looking at this site as a great opportunity to revitalize the market. I think that developers can contribute to this process by embracing the call for a true investment on the public realm and a stronger commitment to the true values of good design. Architects also should contribute by engaging the realities of this problem with imagination and pragmatism.

GG:
In a New York Times Magazine interview, Frank Gehry said that he found it "demeaning" that the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation only paid $40,000 to each team for their Ground Zero designs. Why didn't you feel it wsa demeaning for you to do this work for so much less than what you would normally be paid?

Viñoly:
We think this call is a matter of civic responsibility and not a professional commission. Some of us have entered equally demanding competitions for no pay at all and will continue to do so.

GG:
How would you judge the architecture of the original Twin Towers?

Viñoly:
I think the towers had a very powerful effect as pieces of regional architecture. That is to say they created a skyline that was evocative and recognizable as sculptural elements. The actual way in which they worked in many other levels was less successful. The public spaces surrounding them were unusable and the treatment of the architecture itself was in my view excessively referential to other architectural idioms.

GG:
What do you think about the proposal, suggested by a group of Spanish architects, to build a building that the famous Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi designed for New York City in 1908?

Viñoly:
I was interviewed yesterday about this subject by Spanish television and said that if there was a value in this proposal, it was the fact that Gaudi had thought about these matters in 1908 with the kind of structural skills and the urban design implications that the problem still has.

GG:
Some people have said that none of the new designs will actually be built at Ground Zero. What is your view?

Viñoly:
I really think that one of these visions would be implemented in Ground Zero even though they may have to evolve over time and as a result of the necessary public dialogue that has to take place.

GG:
Thanks for dropping by, Mr Viñoly.

Viñoly:
Thank you. It was a pleasure.


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