Interview with Rafael Viñoly
When you first went to Colchester and started to research, how did you feel that the town would influence your design?
One of the good things about being a constant outsider is that you have the possibility to see and learn about things, without the preconceptions that are inevitable when you know too much.
First, I was struck by the fact that the place is unusually pretty – not in a coy way – and it has a legitimate urban character, and truth. It’s not a town that has been transformed or reproduced or made into a landmark just because one likes that kind of environment. It seems to me that it is historically what it was, and that makes it really spectacular.
But, as in all of these places, there has been development that over time is both respectful and not so respectful of those conditions.
Could you talk about the decision to move the site of the building from its planned position?
My first thought was that the original choice of site for the building was one of those in-between situations that are no good, either way. In the position in which the building had been placed by the master plan, everything stayed within the same fabric. No use was made of the opportunity given by an investment on this scale to throw the stone further into the lake, to recover some of the wonderful spaces that are connected with the history of the Roman remains, and include them in a brief for a civic building.
So instead of just to trying to make the building part of that context, as a semicontemporary intervention, I thought it right to go further into the park – to claim the park for a civic use. Rather than being constantly attached to a series of compromise solutions, it seemed better to use this important investment for Colchester as a regeneration object that focused more on public and open space.
Do you think you have told the people of Colchester something new about their town – have you shown it to them in a different way?
We had a very interesting series of public presentations at the beginning of the process. We always had a clear view of what we were trying to do, and people got it immediately. We were saying that you couldn’t keep piling things onto a fabric that has reached its own edge condition. Rather than remaining attached to that fabric, you could operate on a more dynamic notion of where the footfall should go.
What have been the effects of the change of site?
I am very pleased that the building sits so well in the site, and the outside space is, in itself, an extraordinary resource. And what that also does, which was my initial idea and intention, is to highlight some offsite changes that need to occur over time. For example it makes the bus station site look more attractive than before, and suggests some moves that might come later. What usually happens in towns is that you put infrastructural facilities, such as a bus station, on the perimeter. Then the perimeter changes, so that those things which were previously edge conditions are in the middle – and in the way, somehow. I think Firstsite has been an interesting experiment in showing that there can be a different approach to how you plan regeneration.
And I understand the town has decided to move the bus station now.
Yes, and a lot more things will happen, just by virtue of the building being the way it is. The use of this cove shape, around the eighteenth century landscaped garden at the front, was a focal point in our approach to land use. That now becomes accessible. In addition, the building expands naturally out into the garden at the back, which is shaped by the Roman wall.
Can you talk about the Roman heritage on the site? Well, most interesting to me is the fact that if this project had been a multi-storey building, you would have needed to change the conditions of the foundations. The deployment of the brief over such a vast area reduced the need for excavation to practically nothing. This is an environment which is, for sure, so rich in remains of great archaeological value, that if you wanted to construct a multi-storey building, you 3 would have to excavate. So the building kind of lands on the ground; it practically doesn’t even touch it. In this way you preserve remains that you will be able to find later on.
It’s very economically done, isn’t it, sitting on rubble from another site?
It is incredibly subtle in that sense. These are the kind of issues that people don’t actually see, or in the present climate pay too much attention to, but to me that was a very interesting part of the solution – the idea that by making the weight more distributed, you didn’t have to create deep foundations. And then yes, we used the rubble from another site to create this very thin mat on which the building rests.
Maybe you could talk about the construction. It has a lovely feeling of being light on its feet.
I think that is the main idea, that you have a building that has a form, or a shape, that is very much informed by the conditions of the site, but doesn’t harm it. So the construction is pretty much an inherent part of the form making. And an object that you sit on a plane that you do not want to affect too much must have its own structural integrity. That’s the reason for the oblong, almost circular shape that the building has in section. The floor is an integral part of the walls and the roof, so it has a distributive force. And rather than landing on a column, imposing vertical force, it lands on a surface, on a foundation beam. You could conceivably lift the whole thing up and move it out. That’s where the shape comes from. It isn’t just simply an aesthetic thing, it’s much more interesting to me than that. It’s a ring, as opposed to a table with legs.
Were there aspects of the steel fabrication that were innovative, for this country at least?
The techniques are very simple and available. I think that in Britain people have done steel structures of enormous complexity, much more than what we have done here. It’s true that there has been some computer-aided manufacturing, because the shapes are all different. The most important aspect is the idea of trying to avoid vertical forces and distribute the load on a much larger surface to reduce the impact on the soil conditions.
What sits between the inside and the outside surfaces?
The whole thing is encased in a waterproofing system, with a Sheetrock panelling system inside, which helps it to read as a logical space, rather than as a series of elements. We recover some sense of those elements in the way the ceiling is treated, with thin lighting devices at the top that show where the structure goes. But fundamentally the floors, walls and ceiling are architecturally expressed as the same – not just because that was the intention, spatially, but because the structure is like that.
How did you decide on the crimped, hand finish of the gold cladding?
It is a very difficult material to keep flat, but if you accept the fact that it’s never going to be flat, then you can create this sort of gridded, textured surface, as opposed to a pristine automobile type of finish, which might have been another approach. But with the money and technology we had, it could never have been done. So you accept that and in this case, I think it has been rather successful. When you approach the building, it’s like a kind of Issey Miyake thing!
And it feels a bit archaeological, a sense of gold possibly being found…
The idea of the gold is very much connected to that sense, too – quite apart from the fact that it helped us to reinforce the unusual character of the architecture, and made it even more proud of itself, rather than trying to be contextual.
I understand that you sometimes talk about the building as the crest of a centurion’s helmet.
To be frank, these are associations that you make, that you probably had subconsciously, but I never thought of that when I was actually working on it. The idea of the shape was more to do with bringing people in from Queen Street, and getting them from one place to another, as well as responding to the curvature of the ÂDshaped’ garden in front of the East Hill House. The route through the building ends in the restaurant, which creates a destination in a place which is functionally so varied.
Can you describe any sustainable features in the building?
In this case, we created a very highly insulated building, using the double layer to deliver extraordinarily efficient thermal protection. Making the building less about glass and more about solid material not only reduced cost but enabled us to maintain the quality of the space and to treat it almost entirely naturally from the point of view of interior temperature. Of course we had to have some air conditioning, however, because of the requirements of the art programme.
Within the building there is one area of the floor, isn’t there, which is going to take heavier loads, from artworks?
If you notice, the site also has a drop, and the floor follows the natural slope of the site. So it’s not a flat building. And the funnel shape of the building means the span varies, so you have some areas where you can increase the vertical load.
It’s fascinating to see how the practicalities and the aesthetics join.
Well, for me this is a fundamental part of what I like architecturally. I couldn’t say that it’s a better architecture than other architectures, but I am personally interested in joining practicalities. And at this particular moment, when buildings are used for sculptural exercises at the expense of some other things, it makes me wonder if there isn’t a better way of addressing those issues. There is always, in any kind of design, this type of work – the effort to marry things into a form or into a solution that doesn’t discard any of the parts of the problem. You, the architect, may also think that there are issues that are not your problem. Maybe you make a shape and then ask somebody else to put a structure round it, or fit the functions into it. That just doesn’t happen to be the area that I’m really interested in. I also think that’s a pretty fundamental part of what architecture is historically. The ideas behind Palladio are not unrelated to building typology, functionality and structural design.
Viewed from the exterior, the building feels very right for the context, but also quite exotic and exuberant…
Sure – it has a little bit of an independent character, I would say. And I think one of the wonderful things about it is its awkward personality. You cannot say it is an art gallery, a school, or a restaurant; it’s a combination of all these things, and for me that’s what makes it so open-ended. I am very pleased with it, because it has been a difficult process, over more than eight years.
It is an amazing thing that Firstsite’s Director, Kath Wood, has managed to do. If she did not have this degree of imagination, solidarity and sense of engagement with the community, it would have been almost impossible to come up with a solution like this. It would have been far more formulaic. In a public process, and a programme that was very difficult to implement, we started by saying, ÂWhatever it is that informed this set of decisions before, it could be improved by changing the basic conditions of the whole process’ – in other words, by moving the site. She was very responsive to an idea that posed a very high level of risk for her. If it wasn’t for her, the building would not have been like this. Her resilience, and the level of consensus that she was able to generate in the town, was unbelievable. People always talk about the importance of the client, but in this case she is not just a client, but a person with a level of loyalty to the place that goes beyond the call of duty – and she has a sense of humour, which is fundamental.
There is certainly humour expressed in the building – in the colours, for example…
During the development she was always encouraging us to be that way, and that’s the reason why I am saying if you had had a frightened client or a person who was not self-possessed enough to really give you her thoughts about it, probably the building, even with this solution, would have been different. I say that because in some other cases it is exactly the opposite. You want it to be charming and imaginative and then it gets stuck in this machine of impediment.
Within the building, the circulation takes the visitor from one end of the building to the other. Yet isn’t there is a kind of convention with galleries, which says you have to go in a circle – not least so you end up at the shop again?
Well, if this were just a museum, that circular pattern would be appropriate. But in a building which has such a diverse set of functions associated with the main circulation, I don’t think there is anything wrong about asking people to go back the way they came. On the contrary, I think it reinforces the variety that the programme offers. 7 Also important was the fact that if you wanted to complete the circle, then you would have to go outside and make that part of your tour. You can see that plainly when you walk through the building. It is so embracing and refers so clearly to that semicircle of landscaping. It takes possession of it, and that is interesting. But yes, the main idea was not that you would have to connect one end to the other, because it is not necessarily a sequential scheme. It’s not an exhibition-based circulation, which is what you would find in a museum. You could come just for an event in the auditorium and leave, right? So that is the reason for the location of the restaurant at the end, because it’s sort of like a magnet that draws people to the back of the building.
The education space is very generous. Did you think about people making things in the building?
It was part of the brief. The education component is enormous. You can’t define the building within a typology whose function is obvious or that has a historical precedent. It’s not so much a museum as a Kunsthalle, with conferences, films and a space where artists and audiences make things together. And the vitality that it has, as a result of this concoction of functions, is the client’s idea.
I asked Kath if she was going to use the pitched walls on the inside curve of the building for art. She said, ÂNo, probably not, but actually in the first exhibition we are. Anyway, Rafael says that a building has to present challenges!’
Ha! Not too many challenges. But I did say to her that one of the things that this particular building form could give her is the challenge of how to use it, given that the usage is not traditionally defined. If this had been a conventional museum, there would have been ten times the number of vertical walls.
It reminded me a little of museums, like Louisiana, for example, and St Paul de Vence, which have this feeling of drawing you in to both the building and its setting.
Yes, very much so. What the building suggests both in terms of the use of outside space and its configuration, is a circulation that always allows you to look out. It’s like a large corridor whose inner face can be used as an exhibition space. As you move down the corridor towards the restaurant, you try to maximise the enjoyment of the view as it radiates outwards.
Inside the building, one is struck by a very playful aesthetic…
Yes, it is true. But it’s not unrelated to form-making. It’s just a question of what the logic behind it is. When you come into the building the spaces’ shapes are legitimised by the fact that you are fitting a variety of stuff inside this very large container. This creates very unusual spatial conditions. Every time I visit Firstsite, I remind myself of the whole logic of the building. It’s quite endearing, I think – and a smart way of dealing with a difficult problem and a difficult process. It’s very varied. It’s to do with not trying to make too much of a dogmatic solution for anything. There is something about rigour that is not always to be recommended. Of course rigour has to be applied where necessary, or justified – but yes, it was meant to be fun.
So once you have solved the key problem of how to make the building sit, and how to get in and out of it, and so forth, then you are able to open up?
It opens up a different set of possibilities. In our field, people criticise some buildings as being uni-dimensional or too much of a one liner. I do think there is something in this building of what people call a Âsyncretic solution’ – meaning, you made it like this, but it is also like that. On the other hand, the whole notion of the value of complexity is something I find doubtful. When you experience a building, once you recognise the tricks of its complexity, it’s not complex any more. Then the building is used day by day, and must be suffered day by day…
As I always say, architecture is the only medium that you cannot turn off. You can decide not to watch TV or go to the movies or read a book, but you must suffer architecture no matter what. So I think that the most successful buildings are those that become platforms for people to do whatever the hell they want with them, as opposed to being sealed and totally perfect descriptions of how they are to be perceived or used or judged. I think a lot about these things. I don’t think the whimsical nature of architecture is pertinent. You know, many people think that all it takes is to draw a line, and then after you’ve seen it 25 times you say, why?
Firstsite is a small project for you, though as I can tell, a very precious one. How does it relate to your wider architecture?
This conversation has reminded me of the thinking process behind it. It was one of those very rare occasions when you happen to find a way into it, so that its own logic becomes incorporated into the solution. It’s something that you follow rather than make, so the building designs itself, somehow. That’s very unique and very wonderful when it happens. So you learn to love some projects more than others simply because you find them more successful in their growing pains. They go through life with more integrity than others. Firstsite has that kind of integrity. This implies that you may be upsetting some people’s preconceptions, but that’s not the result of machination or a cynical approach. Quite the opposite. It is just a more complete thinking process, one that allows you to see all the way through to after the building has been built and is being used. There is also this phenomenon which is really the test of high performance in this business, to me, and that is whether you can generate a certain level of happiness in the people that work in it. I think the building maintains a level of integrity which is, I think, very visible. People see it.
I know that you’re a musician and I wondered, just as a general question, how do music and architecture meet in the way that you process things?
I have said this before. I find this association – that people since Goethe have made – quite false. I don’t think they have anything to do with each other. The only valid point of comparison is that architecture and classical music, or what people understand as classical music, are both compositional: you Âcompose’ something, and there is an intellectual process that predates an experience and that fixes the score, so to speak, for others to play. And that’s the extent to which the comparison could be made. Past that point, the material itself is so different and so un-reducible to something that artificially would make it similar, that the comparison breaks down right there. You could make the comparison between architecture and almost anything else. This notion of Âfrozen music’⁄ music isn’t frozen, architecture isn’t frozen, so that while the poetic nature of that association is wonderful in itself, in practical terms and in specific terms you are dealing with completely different materials. I do think that it has been used on the part of architects, not just by the critics, in ways that show they don’t know what music is, or worse, they don’t know what architecture is – these questions of associations between harmony and rhythm and all that. You cannot translate. But people do translate, they do assume that you can construct a rationale around your predisposition as a musician towards architecture or the other way round. In music there is only one dimension that is valid, and that is the aesthetic dimension: the pure intuitive reaction to a stimulus that is abstract. In architecture, artistically that may happen, but you could not disassociate this from many other levels on which a building operates, which isn’t the same as in music. For example, there’s one thing in architecture that people thoroughly underrate but which is fundamental; and that’s gravity. In music, unless you had an emotional response, you wouldn’t even play it. In architecture, in order to find that kind of response, you have to search in a very detailed way, because there are very few moments in the history of architecture in which that level of performance has occurred. For me that is important.
Are there things you can say that you have experienced in that way? In this business there have been 10 or 15 moments in which these things have been at that level. If you look at Mies van der Rohe – some moments of Mies – that’s really art. Major stuff! If you study Palladio in detail it blows your mind. Not too many of those nowadays!