Brooklyn Builder: Rafael Viñoly Talks, Ambitiously, About Architecture

New York has its share of architectural contributions from Rafael Viñoly-from Jazz at Lincoln Center to the Brooklyn College West

New York has its share of architectural contributions from Rafael Viñoly-from Jazz at Lincoln Center to the Brooklyn College West Quad-and last week the City Council decided that there would be one more. It approved the New Domino development set to be built on the site of the Domino Sugar Refinery on the Williamsburg waterfront.

The New Domino weathered years of regulatory reviews and stiff opposition from those who felt that the proposed 11.2-acre complex of condo towers and stores was too dense. Ultimately, the two highest towers were lowered to 34 floors from 40, paving the way for approval of Mr. Viñoly’s master plan for the site. It was a good week for Mr. Viñoly in other ways, too. Two days earlier, it was announced he had won the commission to design the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston, Mass., right next to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

Mr. Viñoly talked to The Observer about his newest projects and working in New York.


The Observer: What was your reaction to hearing that the New Domino was given a go ahead by the City Council?

Mr. Viñoly: Well, we were very happy. We feel very strongly that it is an important contribution to the future of Brooklyn and New York by extension.


What did you think of all the controversy?

In a project of this nature, there are always people against and always people for it. … From my perspective, the plan couldn’t have been more sensitive to the existing conditions. … It clearly is a density project, as I have always supported because I think the beauty of New York and the best part of Brooklyn are parts where you have a huge amount of density, which I think is really what creates urban life.


Can you talk about Brooklyn and the nature of building in Brooklyn, especially on the Williamsburg waterfront?

Brooklyn has this amazing (it’s always had it historically, also) this home-grown view of Manhattan. It looks more like Brooklyn owns Manhattan than the other way around. This is really a front-row seat, and it kind of makes it an opportunity to really enjoy the view of the city as an object, not just as a city but as an urban object.

At the same time, [the New Domino is] generating a profile you can see from Manhattan as not belonging to Manhattan. It’s not a Manhattan architecture, it’s essentially much more a Brooklyn architecture, with the use of a brick of a much finer grain and a less monumental type of architecture than the buildings in Manhattan tend to have.


Are you keeping the huge Domino Sugar sign? Can you talk about bridging the past and the future in the architectural design?

The plan sort of hinges around the conservation of the refinery building and that very sort of imposing object on the side. It carries a great deal of memories for people [used to] looking at it from across the river but also from Brooklyn. The plan basically evolves on the notion that this centerpiece is to be framed by buildings that are capable of transition in scale as well as in form. [We’ll] move higher elements of the building towards the water, which is where you really have the most spectacular views.

What was it like building Jazz at Lincoln Center in the Time Warner Center?

The most important thing about Jazz at Lincoln Center is the fact that it’s the first time that perhaps the most important art form in American culture has a place to really exhibit itself and dedicated to its own particular conditions of performance. … Nobody had actually done, prior to this, a series of halls dedicated just to the specifics of the music of jazz, which is completely different than classical music or theater or anything like that. This was the absolutely brilliant idea of Wynton Marsalis. We had a wonderful time doing it.


Tell me about designing New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus. What challenges do you encounter?

It’s an extremely different climatic condition. But, at the same time, it is a kind of project that signals a sort of rebirth, if you will, or sort of a clear intention on the part of Abu Dhabi to engage in the development of culture and education with a great deal of interest or investment, real investment in it.  [This creates] an interesting problem. How do you engage with the typical vernacular conditions of the site? How, historically, has Islamic architecture dealt with this type of climate? At the same time, how do you signal a departure from it? 


How will you interpret N.Y.U. in the Mideast?

[The Abu Dhabi campus] needs to recover some of the virtues of the N.Y.U. campus here in downtown. Here, you have something that resembles much more the life of the Village. So walking distances and rather integrated architecture somehow gives you the chance and the possibility to develop an approach to the place, which without imitating Washington Square, keeps signals and … qualities and reinterprets them in a place in which the climactic conditions are so different and the cultural conditions are so distinct and different. It’s really extraordinary. It’s a joint venture, which is a fully balanced operation between the university and the government, and it’s really moving forward quite well and quite rapidly. 


What are your ideas for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate?

The senator had a very important idea, the notion of creating an institute for the institution that he was so influential in [the Senate], and so much a part of it. [It also almost touches the presidential library], so the complementarity between the two buildings seems to be like an obligation almost: maintaining the individuality and at the same time trying to stress the notion that these are two buildings that refer to two people that were so close to each other and have that special relationship. That’s what has driven the design.


What trends are you seeing in New York architecture?

I think there is a regaining of the value of architecture as a contribution to the city and a contribution to business. You’ve seen the introduction of many foreign architects. I think that’s a very positive move and positive change, I think that there are a number of new projects in the pipeline that continue to signal that. I’m always very happy to be part of it.


What’s New York like as a city to build in?

I always thought this is perhaps the most important urban experiment in the history of mankind.

Brooklyn Builder: Rafael Viñoly Talks, Ambitiously, About Architecture