New GSB’s architect Vinoly speaks downtown

By Hassan S. Ali

Rafael Viñoly, the world-renowned architect who designed the new Graduate School of Business (GSB) building, spoke on Saturday at the Merchandise Mart downtown as part of Architectural Digest’s “Architecture Days” lecture series, where he discussed the planning, construction, and final stages of the four-year-long project.

Viñoly progressed through the initial parts of the project, describing the “spectacularly run” competition held by the University administration, in which his design was selected. Four 30-inch plasma monitors complemented the lecture, displaying the sketches and photographs prepared during the initial design phase for the building.

“[The building] is essentially a glass cube,” Viñoly said of his modernist design. From a functional standpoint, “It was a first attempt to define the periphery of the campus,” he said.

A self-described “pragmatist,” Viñoly described a tireless effort to connect the entire university community with the building. Calling the students and faculty “geniuses,” Viñoly said, “We thought that the students were the soul of the school,” adding that it was hard to convince the faculty on this point.

Viñoly emphasized the idea of connectedness, in both real and abstract contexts. “I am taking vocabulary and reinterpreting it into ways that are not literal,” he said. Viñoly described the different parts of the building, most notably the faculty offices, as a “blend of super-privacy and connection to the rest of the University.” He explained that most of the building’s windows are not tinted, and that “professors can both see and be seen,” as another aspect of being connected to the community. This underlying theme of connectedness “completes a narrative within itself,” Viñoly said.

Accommodating his design within two significantly different architectural styles was a challenge for Viñoly. He recalled asking his design team, “How do you insert something that looks obvious yet fits in?” Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie-style Robie House on the north and the famous Gothic style of the campus, most notably Ida Noyes Hall and Rockefeller Chapel, surround the GSB building’s location. “We tried to place the building in context,” Viñoly said.

The architect’s admiration for Wright was clear from the beginning of his lecture. “We wouldn’t be where we are today without him,” Viñoly said, in homage to Wright. He expressed great disappointment that many had underwritten Wright’s house. “Buildings have a responsibility to deal with the changing conventions of the time. The past is somebody else’s future,” he said.

Viñoly pointed to the elevated platform that constitutes the building’s main entrance on the corner of Woodlawn Avenue and 58th Street, which he designed as a viewing area for people to see Robie House in “the way it should be seen.” “There is no other purpose for this platform than to allow for breathing space for the [Robie] house to reconstruct itself,” he said.

Viñoly admitted to Frank Lloyd Wright influences his GSB design. He elaborated on Wright’s use of outdoor spaces, and directed the audience’s attention to the patios, terraces, and outdoor spaces around the facility. “The project is a gentle intervention that has been accepted and enjoyed by the people who struggled to make it happen,” he said.

In his concluding remarks, Viñoly re-emphasized the notion of connectedness in his building, expressing admiration for the University’s diverse community. “There is an association with the ‘business’ part of the school,” he said, explaining the “swanky, sophisticated, and clubby” parts of the building’s cutting-edge modern design. “You wouldn’t do this thing for astrophysicists,” he said, joking about a divide between “nerds” and “B-school” students.

Viñoly finished his talk by briefly discoursing on the difference between contemporary art and architecture. Despite the four pairs of eyeglasses hanging around his neck, he claimed that he is not an “artist.” He said people feel that strange eyewear “suddenly makes you a celebrity,” adding that the perception of architects as artists is just an element of style.

Making sure to both inform and entertain his University audience, Viñoly quipped, “If there is one thing you don’t have to deal with, it is stupidity.”