Rafael Viñoly, a Uruguay-born architect who embraced organic curves and light-filled expanses in projects such as the Tokyo International Forum and put his stamp on New York’s skyline with his super-skinny 432 Park Avenue tower, died March 2 at a hospital in New York. He was 78.
Mr. Viñoly had an aneurysm, said his son, Román.
Mr. Viñoly, who was raised in Argentina, began his career in the late 1960s as part of a team commissioned for institutional projects in Buenos Aires including a labor union headquarters and an annex to the parliament complex. They were starting their biggest undertaking yet — the 50,000-capacity Mendoza Stadium (now Malvinas Argentinas Stadium) and broadcast center for the 1978 World Cup soccer tournament — when a military dictatorship toppled the government of Isabel Perón in a 1976 coup.
For the junta, the World Cup was seen as an opportunity to garner international legitimacy despite mounting evidence of “dirty war” atrocities including leftist opponents detained or “disappeared.” Mr. Viñoly was now accountable to the military rulers over the completion of the venue.
Just before the World Cup, Mr. Viñoly’s personal library was searched by authorities. He and his family felt they were no longer safe and left the country. First, Mr. Viñoly took a guest lecturer post at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and then permanently settled in New York in 1979.
Mr. Viñoly said his preference on architectural “openness” was a response to the paranoia and the enforced obedience he saw under the junta. A hallmark of his designs is what he called a “new kind of civil space” of grand halls and spaces. “You can’t avoid seeing other people,” he said. “There are no barriers.”
Mr. Viñoly called himself a disciple of the “unglamorous” side of architecture by emphasizing function and practicality over more embellished architectural statements.
“One of the problems I see in architecture today is that you get fascinated by this ‘wow’ factor,” he said. “That is something that passes in 15 seconds.”
“I have a strong adherence to the notion of restraint … but architecture isn’t fashion,” he added.
Not everything came together without criticism, however. He headed a design team that was runner-up in the competition to rebuild the World Trade Center site in New York. The team’s concept of two spires, encased in latticework like steel skeletons, was deemed by some as too somber and reminiscent of the twin towers destroyed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
In London, his rotund design for 20 Fenchurch Street was quickly dubbed the “Walkie Talkie” for its handset-like swoop. “It feels bloated, not elegant,” complained architecture reviewer Rowan Moore in the Guardian. Summer sunlight off the 38-story building can also bake streets below — a similar problem that first plagued Mr. Viñoly’s Las Vegas hotel and spa, the Vdara, which intensified sun beams into a sizzling no-go zone.
Even though Mr. Viñoly did not carry the public name recognition of some peers, such as I.M. Pei or Frank Gehry, his work reshaped cityscapes seen by tens of millions of people each day.
The 197-foot wall of laminated glass and curving roofline of the Tokyo International Forum, opened in 1997, has become as much a part of the city’s fabric as the towering colonnades at New York’s Lincoln Center, where Mr. Viñoly designed the Jazz at Lincoln Center hall. On the other side of Central Park, his 432 Park Avenue stands like an obelisk at nearly 1,400-feet high.
Any vast project “only becomes human when people make it human,” Mr. Viñoly told Newsweek in 1997. “That’s not something the architect can decide. It’s something that has to happen on its own.”
Mr. Viñoly affected a semi-nerdy demeanor for his affinity for well-worn loafers and a tendency to wear multiple glasses — sometimes as many as four — with some balancing on his head or dangling on a string from his neck.
He once described his normal workday as spending the morning at the piano (he had been an accomplished young pianist and once considered a career in music), then walking to the office; a late dinner — possibly made by their chef — and then watching a little television with his wife.
“I wear these gray sweatpants that are 35 or 40 years old,” he told the New York Times. “They’re like part of my skin. I don’t wash them too much, because they’d fall apart.”
Yet, he also was known to demand a relentless work schedule in crunch times.
During the design competition for the Tokyo International Forum, Mr. Viñoly hit a mental roadblock on how to incorporate the arc of rail tracks with the straight-line geometry of surrounding streets. He decided to take a break with his wife in Paris. On the flight, he noticed the curving latitude lines of the Pan Am logo on each side of the equator. It solved his problem: parabola-like sweeps for the tracks.
He immediately flew back from New York for round-the-clock revisions with his team.
“His concern was that some schools were losing the craftsmanship and technical knowledge and architecture was being too conceptual,” said Amir Kripper, a Boston-based architect who was born in Uruguay and has closely followed Mr. Viñoly’s career. “His approach was much more practical and believed the role of the architect is about providing an interesting architectural solution.”
Other landmark projects dotted the globe: The cello-shaped Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia; the angular Cleveland Museum of Art; the New York University campus in Abu Dhabi, and the Carrasco Airport near Montevideo, Uruguay, rendered like a flying saucer about to take to the sky.
In the Washington area, his name is attached to sites including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s biomedical research campus in Chevy Chase, Md., and the planned condominium development known as Wharf Parcel 9. (His proposal for a redesigned plaza at the Kennedy Center was accepted in 2004 and later shelved.)
Mr. Viñoly could seem most perplexed when he didn’t have a blank canvas.
He struggled to understand the collective nostalgia for the brooding smokestacks and hulking brick turbine chambers of London’s Battersea power station, a former coal-powered goliath on the Thames. Preservationists had won the battle for the site to remain largely intact.
A master plan he proposed created a commercial and retail complex. In Mr. Viñoly’s twist on the plant’s polluting past, he added plans for a zero-carbon footprint. In a rare about-face, Mr. Viñoly appeared worn down by the London quarrels over the project and eventually stepped aside — frustrated over the affection for the old smoke belcher.
“It’s like preserving Dracula, somehow,” he said.
Architecture as music
Rafael Viñoly Beceiro was born June 1, 1944, in Montevideo, Uruguay, and the family moved when he was young to Buenos Aires, where his mother was a mathematics teacher and his father was a film and theater director.
Mr. Viñoly graduated in 1969 from the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism of the University of Buenos Aires and later formed an architectural firm with five associates.
Besides his son Román, a director at the architecture firm founded by his father, survivors include Mr. Viñoly’s wife of 54 years, the former Diana Braguinsky; stepsons Nicolás and Lucas; a brother; one grandchild and three step-grandchildren.
Mr. Viñoly often drew connections between his two passions, music and architecture. He said he could listen to a Bach fugue or a Thelonious Monk jazz arrangement and always find something new.
“That’s what I think good architecture is,” he said. “It’s like good music.”