Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
Rafael Vinoly’s Twin Urban Preservation Sites, Separated by an Ocean
Two career-defining statements on urbanism and preservation take very different routes to completion
By John Gendall
New York architect Rafael Viñoly, FAIA, will remember 2010 as the year that saw a longstanding bureaucratic logjam clear, pushing forward two landmark projects. In London, he won approval for his nearly $9 billion Battersea masterplan—an 8-million-square-foot design for the former Battersea Power Station along the south bank of the River Thames. And closer to home, the City Council of New York approved a zoning change for the redesign of the former Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn. This 2.8-million-square-foot mixed-use redevelopment will convert the factory into 2,200 residential units. The two large, politically-charged projects have each spent several years bound up in municipal approval processes and public debate, but both are now moving into their implementation phases.
For most architects, working on a single design of this scale would be a career-defining project. Viñoly, however, has been juggling the two simultaneously.
“The most interesting aspect for the office has been how the processes in New York and London work in very different ways,” Viñoly says. “The planning mechanisms are completely different. In New York, the process is fundamentally based on the idea that you have a set of rules to follow,” he explains, citing the expansive set of city planning and zoning codes that have shaped the New York skyline for nearly two centuries. “In London, everything is up for discussion. There are no set parameters for floor-area-ratio or density. It’s all a negotiation.
“In London, the planning mechanism is much more discursive and interactive and agreed upon, and it doesn’t have a firm boundary within which you are forced to move,” he explains. “On a case-by-case basis, it’s all relatively in flux. Essentially, there’s one agency that grants the permit and it’s political factors that control that council. There is no real basis for a technical report that can support or make your case.”
Different though each approach may have been, they each demand a willingness to modify a design—and a roster of consultants. “It’s a very complex thing,” he says. “We treated them as independent tracks,” he says, citing the different agencies and approaches of each city.
A methodical architect interested in research, Viñoly used the transatlantic projects as a way to analyze approval processes. “Ultimately,” he says, “both have some virtues and pitfalls. I started wondering how this thing could be improved. I tell my friends in London that they should consider developing at least a basic skeleton of parameters so that the private sector can’t completely lead the process.”
New York, he figures, could benefit from London’s extensive peer review system. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) reviews designs for the government. Its funding has since been withdrawn, owing to the government’s budget cuts.
“CABE was an interesting idea,” says Viñoly. “Six or eight people who advised on design who had reviews like those in architecture schools--you may not have wanted to be back in school, but they were composed of the most important architects in the country. So if you take them seriously, you can learn a lot from it.”
Common design ground
For all the differences in process, the two projects have much in common, beginning with the fact that both are abandoned monuments to a bygone era of urban industry. “Both of them were hated buildings during the time they were operating, but they now have heritage value, and they both deal with the pressing conflicts of preservation,” Vinoly says.
Neither of the projects, though, deals with the standard fare in preservation practices. “These are both non-architectural scales,” he says, citing the extensive construction that went into waterproofing the sugar refinery on the Brooklyn site. Now, in both cities, he needs to transform what was once built and scaled for industry into a mixed-use residential neighborhood.
The sites are also very similar, with Battersea located long the River Thames and the Domino on the East River. As Vinoly points out, both sit across the river from centers of political decision-making. Dealing with both sites simultaneously, though, was a challenge due to the different approaches. “It was quite schizophrenic,” he says.
Despite the differences in process, ultimately he believes cities and agencies are trying to build the best designs. “But,” he says, “both sides can learn from the other.”
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