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Friday25 July 2014

Rafael Viñoly: Manchester City’s hot new signing

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Rafael Viñoly speaks to BD about the World Cup, his plans for the world’s richest football club, and whether at Battersea Power Station he can end 30 years of hurt.

Rafael Viñoly is something of a contradiction when it comes to football. At the time we speak, the three teams he could legitimately claim to support – Uruguay, Argentina and the USA – are all doing well in the World Cup, but that doesn’t seem to be good enough for him.

“I am a very bad fan because I really support the team that plays the best,” he says.

Which is handy for a man who has been commissioned to design a £1 billion sports and leisure complex for the world’s richest football club.

He worked with Manchester City’s chairman, Khaldoon Al-Mubarak, on the Mina Zayed waterfront project in Abu Dhabi and is excited about their new venture, which aims to aid the regeneration of a depressed area of east Manchester.

Viñoly: “I always feel like the underdog. It’s useful to have a sense of reality.”

Source: Rafael Viñoly Architects

Viñoly: “I always feel like the underdog. It’s useful to have a sense of reality.”

He hopes the development will turn the city into a European Mecca for football. Plans are at an early stage but he wants to encourage stars and rookies to mix, with a sports academy and training facilities featuring hi-tech pitches that can mimic different conditions. All this will be funded by the commercial elements: shops, a luxury hotel and entertainment venues.

But while the Uruguayan-born New Yorker might choose to back winning teams, it is the weaker sides he identifies with personally.

“I always feel like the underdog. It’s useful to have a sense of reality,” he says. We are talking about his highest-profile UK scheme, Battersea Power Station, and whether he believes he will be the architect who cracks it, the one whose scheme is actually built after years of false dawns.

“Wouldn’t that be great!” he says, disarmingly. “I have no idea. It would be like if Uruguay won the championship, right? It’s unpredictable. Nobody knows. It’s the underdog component.”
He admits many good architects have tried to make Battersea work before him – hence the refreshing dose of humility – but is confident he is close to ticking all the planning and design boxes. Hard luck, then, to be doing so in the middle of the biggest financial meltdown for decades.

“I have been through these twice in my life already,” he says. “The great thing about architecture is if you are not patient you can’t work in this field. The last thing you can do is to get frustrated because everything takes time. But the signs of recovery came about sooner than I would have thought. How real that is I don’t know, but it’s a good sign.”

He stresses how critical a tube link is for the Battersea site, welcomes mayor Boris Johnson’s recent suggestion of using Tax Increment Financing to fund it - and then bemoans the passing of the 19th-century approach to civic infrastructure projects.

“In Victorian times the government would have just built it,” he says. “Unless somebody pays for all of this there’s absolutely no way you can save the building. That’s one of the major issues that make the whole planning process so interesting from an anthropological perspective; that you have these endless discussions about things that have one single way of being checked out, which is essentially ’who pays for it?’ “

That’s typical Viñoly, to find anthropological interest in the planning process. Returning to the football theme (our interview is sandwiched between two games and begins with a paean to the vuvuzela), Viñoly is from the same mould as Eric Cantona. Philosophising comes easily and he enjoys a good metaphor.

But first he has more to say on Battersea and planning. He is pleased with his design for what is the most prominent site in London (“assuming the country doesn’t disappear and you guys have to sell Buckingham Palace”) and is passionate that leaving the building to rot would not only be tragic for the crumbling hulk itself but for the entire area. “It’s bad urbanism,” he says.

There are strong parallels between Battersea and Domino, his $1.5 billion Brooklyn development on a large industrial waterside plot, but he says the cities’ planning systems could hardly be more different. He praises New York for the speed of its decision-making which eases development, but says the UK has a sophisticated approach to design that is entirely lacking in the States.

This is perhaps surprising from a man who has suffered a string of frustrations in Britain, though things are looking up in Oxford and Colchester and he predicts good news is imminent on London’s Walkie Talkie tower at 20 Fenchurch Street.

“There’s a very real possibility of Fenchurch restarting very soon,” he says, “which is an extraordinary sign of hope and a great thing for me because it’s going to be a very interesting building.”

The recession was a “rude awakening”, he agrees, but we all knew our extravagance could not last forever. Cue some more philosophy.

“The financial environment has affected the firm [Rafael Viñoly Architects, which he founded in 1983] the way it has affected the kids going to school,” he says.

“Everybody’s affected, but think for a minute where the effect is coming from and the effect comes from arrogance. This is not a technical failure. It’s not the result of a building defect. This comes from the way people use the system. And that has a very clear origin which is connected to a cultural phenomenon which is connected to a sense you have no responsibilities; you can go and do what the hell you want to do because you have someone else’s money. That is reflected in many practices, not only architecture. That’s the reason why we are caught in this cultural revolution.”

He is strongly critical of the media, which he blames for “contributing to a vulgarisation of the process”. He warns that forcing rapid fashion cycles on architecture leads to a junkie culture in which people demand to be “excited beyond belief” when they walk into a new building.“It’s like being on drugs: after five minutes the effect wears off and you feel like shit,” he says.

He prefers to wait 20 years before he judges the success of his own buildings. A few more of his UK projects might even be built by then.

Goal or gaffe: How his projects have fared

Viñoly burst on to the UK scene in 2003 when he beat 100 rivals to win the competition to design a £16.5 million Colchester visual arts centre. But the Golden Banana skidded to a halt over funding and technical wrangles and, seven years later, it is still under construction, with the envelope due to be completed in the next two months.

Throughout his three decades of practice Viñoly has been a great competition winner. In 2005 he won the job of masterplanning Oxford University’s Radcliffe Infirmary. Cabe and English Heritage promptly laid into his proposals for the site where he is also building a maths institute. That has just won planning, but the masterplan remains controversial.

In 2008 Leicester’s Curve theatre beat the Golden Banana to become Viñoly’s first completed project in the UK, a year behind schedule and costing more than twice its £26.5 million budget. It won a RIBA award but was attacked by the Audit Commission as poor value.

After circling London he arrived in the City with a bang in 2005. His bulbous tower on Fenchurch Street - the Walkie Talkie - had to be chopped by nine storeys in reponse to fears about its impact on St Paul’s. And English Heritage still called it “London’s ugliest and most oppressive building”. Planning: tick. Start date: we’ll get back to you.

In 2008 he became the latest architect to attempt to save Battersea Power Station… with a giant glass eco-chimney. A year later it went in for planning substantially reworked. And with just the four chimneys. Worryingly, this week the site owner REO’s shares plunged 40% when it revealed its debts outweighed its assets by £722 million.

Despite these setbacks, Viñoly has now accepted a commission from his friend Khaldoon Al-Mubarak, chairman of Manchester City, to build a £1 billion sports and leisure complex for the club.

Original print headline - Manchester City’s hot new signing

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Readers' comments (4)

  • The Battersea Power Station proposal looks completely out of scale, non-contextual and not suitable for the Economic and Real Climate we found ourselves in. An Iconic Landmark like the Power Station deserves a design that will respect it's magnificent presence and history. It only needs a simple, elegant, clever and understated solution that does not compete but complement it's surroundings. This proposal looks like a screaming queen next to an attractive wise man.

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  • Daniel Hewitt

    For what it's worth, I'd like to concur with jb's sentiments. I also find it irritating that such an exceptionally rich and highly regarded architect attempts to style himself as an underdog – as though London's planners have an agenda to frustrate him.

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  • The Walkie Talkie is an impressive building. It also highlights the need to stop having costly public inquires at the drop of a hat. The building was approved by the City of London. English Heritage asked for a public inquiry which wasted a lot of time and money and concluded that the building was good after all.

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  • Here's a safe prediction:

    Vinoly won't make the slightest difference to the social deprivation of East Manchester, nor will al-Mubarak.

    Architecture cannot cure deprivation at any level. It never has and it never will. All it ever does is displace it from one place to another, or manipulate the illusion of change.

    But Vinoly wouldn't be the first architect to either (a) fall for this kind of claptrap, or (b) deceive himself and others that architects are anything other than servants to the ruling socieconomic system.

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