A workman in the imaginary city: Rafael Vinoly

Wielding an ashtray, the voluble architect Rafael Vinoly talks about master-planning NYU Abu Dhabi.

A notebook is never safe from Rafael Vinoly. Over evening drinks during a recent visit to the capital, the renowned, restless New York architect - here on business related to his master plan for the campus of New York University Abu Dhabi - was constantly reaching for visual aids. "I need to take your pen," he said a few minutes into our meeting, somehow managing to make the statement (it was not so much a request) sound charming.
Dressed head to toe in black, with a sweater that curled slightly at the neck, Vinoly sat on the edge of his high-backed velveteen chair in a lounge at the Fairmont Bab Al-Bahr. In addition to using up several sheets of lined, spiral-bound paper to illustrate his thoughts, he enlisted a cloth napkin, two empty bottles of expensive sparkling water and one round, purple glass ashtray - which was mainly useful as a point of reference for its funny resemblance to Rem Koolhaas's giant spheroid building in Dubai's proposed Waterfront City.
A boyish-looking 65-year old originally from Uruguay, Vinoly has a tousled nest of pale grey hair and always wears three pairs of plastic-framed spectacles - one on his face, the other two either dangling from his neck or perched on his skull. According to a 2003 interview he gave to the New York Times, this is because he "gets hysterical if he loses his glasses". Among the handful of figures who are routinely designated as "starchitects", Vinoly is something of a borderline case. He does not appear to shrink from being a larger-than-life, media-ready personality, or from making oracular pronouncements (On Abu Dhabi: "When you think of this place, it's precisely character. It's not character-less. Quite the opposite. It just happens to be completely misunderstood.") Yet at the same time he bears a professional affinity for the nerdy, workmanlike challenges of designing complex institutional architecture: hospitals, a nanosystems institute, a cancer research centre. His buildings often seem designed not to be photographed from the air but to be used and experienced - from both the inside and out. And he displays the distinctly unstar-like habit of designing structures that respect their neighbours.
One of his recent projects, the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, sits across from Frank Lloyd Wright's 1910 Robie House. In a flourish that was widely hailed by critics, Vinoly designed the 415,000 square-foot structure with Prairie Style gestures that echo the smaller landmark instead of visually clobbering it. With NYU Abu Dhabi, Vinoly faced the rather different predicament of planning a campus in relation to a context that was still imaginary. Saadiyat Island, where the school is slated to be built, remains a crowded concept but an empty place. The problem was even more vexing given that John Sexton, the voluble president of NYU, is adamant that the campus on Saadiyat should mirror the famously permeable Manhattan campus in being "in and of the city" (a favourite phrase of Sexton's).
"He has an exploding imagination," said Vinoly, professing great admiration for the university president. "But there is no city!" Vinoly began by deciding which models to reject - beginning with that of the traditional university. "This is the citadel, and there's the door," he said, sketching quickly on a clean piece of notebook paper, "and here's the medieval town, and the poor people are here." Rapidly taking shape on the page was a fortress in squiggles; Vinoly's point was that it looked a lot like Yale. "That's a college campus," he said, resting back in his chair. "These people are out; these people are in. That's exactly what we don't want to do."
Instead, Vinoly has designed NYU Abu Dhabi to sit on what is essentially an artificial hillside that slopes down to meet the city around it ("Like if you were on a hill in Northern Italy"). The city streets lead up to the edge of campus and then merge into pedestrian walkways, which head up the slope diagonally towards three main public plazas and a host of yet-to-be-designed campus buildings. The "hill", meanwhile, is hollow; underneath it is the hugely complicated service infrastructure that supports the university. "You've got to create an artificial topography if you want it to link with the context," he said.
After speaking with a kind of patient, intense focus about NYU for a while, Vinoly returned to voluble form and slalomed through a long course of subjects: Koolhaas's concept of the "generic city" ("Generic my foot! I mean give me a break, right? Did you see his ball with the hole in the centre? What do you call that?"); the oil and gas trade ("Completely medieval, by the way. It's like pepper in the 1500s"); the obvious intelligence of the UAE's founder ("My way of judging people is you just look at their picture"); the insidiousness of contemporary architectural culture ("These are operations that tend to do only one thing, which is to create the sense of fame") and the built environment of China ("I was in China in '83, when it was communist, when there wasn't all this hype. I did three projects in China. The mayor of the city was the head of the transportation union of the People's Republic. And I always thought that was better. I still think it was better. Not because of communism. I think it was physically better. More be - yoo - tiful.")
Ever ambivalent about the role of architect as glamour oracle, Vinoly finished on the subject of Abu Dhabi itself. "If you said today, how would you orient development in a place like this, I think you have to be very daring to imagine that. Because you've got to cool down and say, well, I'm not going to copy this or that, or just look into the international register of star architects and hire them all. Because what do they do?" With that, he picked up the purple ashtray and plunked it down again.