Life Getting Hot For Architect Rafael Viñoly

Rafael Viñoly, the celebrated New York architect, is having a great run in a tough town by most architects’ standards.

He’s working on a host of coveted projects: the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, the Bronx Criminal Court Complex and the CUNY School of Architecture. To say nothing of the buildings he’s built all over the world in recent decades.

But his reputation may yet suffer a blow in another building: the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

His firm has until Jan. 16 to work out its differences with Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. Prospects of a settlement don’t look good.

The organization filed suit against the architect in November 2005, accusing Mr. Viñoly of being “an architect who had a grand vision but was unable to convert that vision into reality, causing the owner to incur significant additional expenses to correct and overcome the architect’s errors and delays.”

According to the office of Judge Jan E. DuBois, both parties have been ordered to continue negotiations until Jan. 16, at which point they must give the judge a status report.

But Frances C. Gretes, a spokeswoman for Mr. Viñoly, seemed to think that the case is headed for trial.

“We can’t talk about this until we go to trial, and that’s in the end of January,” said Ms. Gretes, who said that there is “absolutely no validity to [the Kimmel Center’s] claim.”

It’s not the only legal challenge facing Mr. Viñoly, whose eponymous firm built a record of success in New York and around the world over the last 20 years, and whose name became a household word when it participated in the consortium that narrowly lost the coveted World Trade Center commission, to Studio Daniel Libeskind, in a last-minute reversal by rebuilding authorities.

The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority has also sued Mr. Viñoly, along with other architects, arguing that the heating, cooling and sound systems are flawed in its $850 million convention and exhibition center. They also say the curved roof leaks during heavy rains.

William Smith, an attorney at the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, said that he too expects the case to come to court.

“There is a trial date set for June,” said Mr. Smith, adding: “There are series of deficiencies and errors set forth in the complaint.”

But it is the Kimmel case, first reported by the Associated Press on Nov. 27 last year and later splashed on the front page of The Philadelphia Inquirer, that is proving to be the 62-year-old architect’s biggest headache. The managers of the Kimmel Center, the home of the Philadelphia Orchestra, blame Mr. Viñoly’s firm for going $23 million over budget in the center’s construction.

The case sheds light on an issue that has dogged architecture firms that attempt massive and politically difficult urban projects, while at the same time attempting to deliver state-of-the-art design.

Witness Mr. Libeskind’s increasing marginalization at Ground Zero, or the recent shouting match from which architect Frank Gehry absented himself over the weekend over his plans for the Atlantic Yards terminal.

Even organizations like the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, which are willing to go through a difficult construction process to deliver a great building, are aware of the difficulties such architects face.

Carol Enseki, the president of the museum, which Mr. Viñoly’s firm designed and is building for a 2006 opening date, said that she understood that the costs can go up when working with a dynamic architect who is interested in using unorthodox materials to make bold buildings.

“His office has been clear about decisions about new materials and higher costs,” said Ms. Enseki, whose $43 million museum is being mostly paid for by the city. “It occurs in most projects where there is a desire to do outstanding architecture and not typical been-done-before architecture.”

“For the artier architects, who traffic in form first, their notoriety tends not to be as businessmen, and also they don’t tend to be trained in the types of nuts-and-bolts things that would allow them to get a job in on time and on budget,” said Philip Nobel, a prominent architecture critic and author of Sixteen Acres: Architecture and the Outrageous Struggle for the Future of Ground Zero.

The Philadelphia Story

In legal papers, Mr. Viñoly’s firm is accused by the managers of the Kimmel Center of being “wholly unable” to convert the project from concept to construction. “In many ways, this is the most important part of what an architect does and is hired to perform.”

The lawsuit, filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, sets forth that the Kimmel Center hired Rafael Viñoly Architects in April 1997 to design and construct a “world-class” facility. In turn, according to the suit, the firm received $8.9 million and “agreed that its performance was to be held and judged according to a higher standard of care than normally accorded professional architects.” (According to a clerk in Judge DuBois’ office, Rafael Viñoly Architects has not filed an answer with the court.)

Originally, the suit alleges, the owners wanted Rafael Viñoly Architects to provide designs, while another, lesser-known firm would convert the designs into specifications for subcontractors to build the $157 million center.

“Often times architects will pair up; a big name will create the design, and then another will come in and do the more nuts-and-bolts work,” said a source close to the case who is sympathetic to the Kimmel Center. “Viñoly said that he could do both. He couldn’t.”

The lawsuit alleges that R.V.A., as Mr. Viñoly’s firm is known, habitually failed to meet strict deadlines, and its delays in completing designs held up contract biddings which relied on the completion of those designs. The Philadelphia Regional Performing Arts Center, which manages the Kimmel Center, cited a clause in their contract with R.V.A. that states that they had the right to hold Viñoly responsible for any losses incurred if the firm failed to keep up with the project schedule.

“Things started getting delayed from the foundation on up,” said the Kimmel supporter. “From the concrete and steel.”

According to the lawsuit, R.V.A. should have completed designs for bidding by steel subcontractors by September 1998, but the steel specifications were received at the end of February 1999, went out for bid only in April, and were awarded in July—a nine-month setback. During that period, the price of steel increased, as did the cost of the project.

Furthermore, the lawsuit contends that the final construction drawings also arrived nine months late, and were rife with errors.

“Since the Kimmel Center was going to be the new ‘home’ of the Philadelphia Orchestra,” says the lawsuit, the orchestra “would lose money if it had to cease performances because the orchestra had to wait for the concert hall to be completed.”

“If the Kimmel Center did not open as promised, it could signal problems with the Project causing concern and/or disappointment with donors, thereby threatening the success of the Project. Thus, having the Project ready for the opening date was critical not only because of the scheduled performances, but also to maintain and attract donor support.”

But around the time the steel and concrete bidding began, in spring 1999, R.V.A. said it needed an extra $3 million dollars to complete the job, even though construction on the project had not begun. The lawsuit argues that R.V.A. was effectively shaking the Kimmel Center down with a “Hobson’s choice.”

It was then that the organization first began weighing legal action.

“There were considerations about it: Is it better to incur additional costs now, and additional delay, or is it better to deal with the situation later?” said the source with knowledge of the Kimmel Center’s position. “That’s where the balancing happened: Do you pay and argue about it later, or do you say no, and have a delay?”

They paid and the work went ahead, but the managers of the center felt that they needed to compensate for all the earlier setbacks. An acceleration of the work schedule was necessary, according to the suit, and resulted in higher costs in overtime, extra workweeks and additional materials.

“It didn’t come out when it should have, it wasn’t accurate when it came out, parts of it that should have been there weren’t,” said the source, who specifically cited the 425,000-square-foot glass barrel-vaulted roof as one such problem.

“The architect never identified how the roof would be attached to the building. The general contractor had to hire someone to figure it out and they had to be paid.”

The project was completed in the summer of 2002, at a total of $180 million dollars, roughly $23 million over budget.

The Kimmel owners approached R.V.A. with their claim on July 22, 2003, and a long and ultimately fruitless period of mediation in hopes of a settlement took place before the lawsuit was filed on Nov. 23 of last year.

But Ms. Gretes, Mr. Viñoly’s spokeswoman, noted that the Kimmel Center was met with ecstatic reviews. Indeed, The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote in December 2001 that with its capacious glass arch and “magical” interiors, “Even the most jaded heart should race …. It has been a long time since Philadelphia allowed itself such a flamboyant piece of architecture, and its presence should help the city stop thinking of itself as a has-been place.”

Ms. Gretes also supplied a statement to The Observer, saying in part: “We are extremely disappointed by the complaint filed by the Philadelphia Regional Performing Arts Center regarding the Kimmel Center. The same people who praised the building are now criticizing it.”

The Starchitect Chamber

Mr. Viñoly, well known for wearing as many as three pairs of glasses at a time—on his head, on his nose, around his neck—was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1944. He moved to Buenos Aires with his family when he was 5, and showed an early talent as a musician, eventually training to become a concert pianist.

But by the time he arrived at the University of Buenos Aires, he had decided to study architecture instead, because he thought it was a safer career choice. In Argentina he went onto a brilliant career, building the celebrated Mendoza Stadium, folded into the cliffs of the Andes, and a large television studio with a public park on the roof.

In 1979 he came to New York, and opened up his firm, Rafael Viñoly Architects, in 1983. He eventually took up residence on Fifth Avenue and got himself a house in the Hamptons, while his firm became a favorite with the cultural classes, especially for its work on universities and museums.

But the moment that set him apart from other lesser-known but talented architects came in 1989, when he defeated 394 contenders to build the $1.5 billion Tokyo International Forum, a performing-arts and convention center. That complex, completed in 1996 and widely considered a resounding success, put him firmly in the global spotlight.

Since then his firm has established new headquarters in London and offices around the world. He is now considered the type of architect who can wake up a sleepy town with an astonishing building. But he can also build in the big city. He has built widely in New York, starting with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 1988. Since then he has built the Jazz at Lincoln Center theater, renovated the Queens Museum and designed the posh Bungalow 8 Restaurant and Lounge.

But his most important and significant proposal for the city by far was his vision for two soaring latticework towers at the World Trade Center. The THINK team that Mr. Viñoly headed up, which included architects Frederic Schwartz and Shigeru Ban, became one of the main contenders in the competition. Mr. Viñoly’s profile skyrocketed. He began appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Today and Charlie Rose to plug his project, and The New York Times’ architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp, gushed that Mr. Viñoly’s plan was a “soaring affirmation of American values.”

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation also seemed intent on choosing Mr. Viñoly to rebuild at Ground Zero, but met with a veto from Governor George Pataki. “You’re not going to build these skeletons,” Mr. Pataki told LMDC officials, according to New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger, in his book Up from Zero: Politics Architecture and the Rebuilding of New York.

Mr. Nobel said he thought that Mr. Viñoly’s reputation had been burnished by the near win of the THINK group of architects that he led in the Ground Zero competition, especially since so many troubles have subsequently arisen with current designer Daniel Libeskind. He noted that Mr. Viñoly creating an architecture fellowship in his Lower Manhattan studio speaks to his elder statesman status in the starchitect constellation.

“This seems like dirty laundry discovered at an inopportune moment,” said Mr. Nobel. “If these complaints are at all for real, it is bad timing.”

“The trajectory of the star in star architects is hard to predict; their destinies depend on the commissions they receive,” said Rick Bell, the executive director of the American Institute of Architects New York, who remembered that five years ago, when Mr. Viñoly was building a bold courthouse in the Bronx along with a spate of other projects, he wondered, “How could he have been doing more? Well, he has done more since.”

At least some of that success Mr. Bell attributed to what he called the “mystique about runners-up in competitions.”

“I think [the World Trade Center] was the commission of a lifetime, of the century, as Libeskind said. Everybody was aware of what was going on. It’s hard to underestimate the significance that can have on someone’s career.”

“I think he was and is a great architect,” said Frederic Schwartz, the New York architect who collaborated with Mr. Viñoly on the THINK team that nearly won the competition to rebuild Ground Zero. “People call me and e-mail me, they always talk about what could have been. I hear that every day. The group was a pretty special moment.”

Mr. Schwartz, who said that he had not caught wind of the lawsuits, said that he continues to be impressed by Mr. Viñoly’s projects, which are dotted around the country. “What I admire most is his body of work more than any one project. It’s his thought process, which is very rigorous, very inventive. He gives multiple solutions and alternatives, not one answer. Remember in the [World Trade Center] competition we produced three designs. It’s taken to a degree of excellence.”

But that project is not the last to suffer in its passage from idea to building.

The estimated cost of a Viñoly-designed science center and bridge at the University of Arizona has ballooned from an initial $100 to about $350 million and is expected to be completed in 2009.

A proposed art museum in Tampa failed to raise enough funds to get off the ground, but officials there said that Mr. Viñoly’s expensive design, which called for an aluminum canopy and added $25 million dollars to the already unreachable $51 million, was no help.

“We selected him for who he is, for an impact on the community. What we found is that perhaps it wasn’t the most efficient design,” said Bonnie Wise, director of the Revenue and Finance Department of the City of Tampa, who worked closely with the museum.

“The museum was unable to secure its financing. The design was very expensive, and when you have an aluminum canopy, the price is going to go up.”

Massimiliano Fuksas, another world-renowned architect known for his unorthodox and challenging designs, such as Armani’s flagship store in Hong Kong, Vienna’s twin towers and Milan’s sprawling new fairgrounds, called the exposure of architects like Mr. Viñoly to such lawsuits “depressing.”

“I think he does impressive work—he has the idea of architecture as sculpture and comes up with very interesting solutions,” said Mr. Fuksas, who said he regretted that Mr. Viñoly’s team was not chosen to rebuild Ground Zero. “He is one of the most precise architects.”