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Rafael Viñoly, architect who designed the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, dies at 78

Rafael Viñoly discussed a student’s building plans at the Yale Architecture School in New Haven in 2005.JOYCE DOPKEEN/NYT

For renowned architect Rafael Viñoly, designing the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center presented challenges unique to both the city and the neighborhood that would be its home.

“The issue to resolve was how to insert a major civic structure into South Boston, a special community with a very delicate urban fabric,” he told the Globe in 2003.

His solution was a design that “looks like a wave that projects itself toward the water, a gesture reinforced by the large canopy that announces it and creates a prominent outdoor space.”

A New York City-based architect who was born in Uruguay, Mr. Viñoly designed two of Boston’s most memorable buildings: the convention center and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute.


He was 78 when he died of an aneurysm on March 2 in Manhattan. His son, Roman, director of Rafael Viñoly Architects, announced his father’s death on the firm’s website.

Mr. Viñoly “was a visionary who will be missed by all those whose lives he touched through his work,” his son said on the website.

Though best-known for designs that graced other cities — his 432 Park Avenue condominium tower in New York was, for a time, the world’s tallest residential structure — Mr. Viñoly left an imprint on Boston that will probably last long beyond this century.

Among architectural designs for convention centers, “this may well be the best of its kind in the country,” wrote Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell in 2004, in advance of the Boston building’s opening that year.

“To visualize the center, just imagine an airplane hangar almost a third of a mile long,” Campbell wrote. “The hangar has a gently curving vaulted roof. The roof spans an enormous exhibition hall, where there is enough square footage to play 12 football games simultaneously. Most exhibition halls are windowless, but daylight enters from strips of windows that line the edges of the roof.”


Like nearly any architectural design, Mr. Viñoly’s plan for the convention center did not draw universal praise.

When his renderings were unveiled in 1999, Campbell praised the building’s “tense elegance of a ship under full sail.”

Globe op-ed columnist Joan Vennochi was less enamored of the proposal, calling it “Houston Astrodome ugly.”

She wrote in 1999 that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so is architecture. Over time, tastes change about both. Boston City Hall is now generally regarded as a dog of a building, but it once was hailed as an architectural gem.”

Befitting his profession, however, Mr. Viñoly took the long view.

“Architecture lasts too long to be whimsical or to be considered an expression of fashion or personal preference. We need to give it a chance to be a contribution to the public realm,” he said in the 2003 Globe interview.

While architecture in Boston traditionally “has been heavily dominated by a reinterpretation of the past,” he added, “in places like South Boston, the city has started to renew itself in a more progressive way.”

With the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the US Senate, Mr. Viñoly faced a different challenge. The Dorchester building is a brief walk from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum — an older structure, designed by the legendary I.M. Pei, which already had woven itself permanently into Boston’s architectural fabric.


“If, as Ted Kennedy said when he spoke at the opening in 1979, Pei’s building calls to mind a lighthouse, something to look up to, Viñoly’s seems to want to be some kind of tugboat, carrying out the hard, thankless task of educating our youth about the mechanics of filibusters and reconciliation, while steering them away from the perils of political indifference,” wrote Sebastian Smee, who was then the Globe’s art critic, in 2010 of Mr. Viñoly’s design for the institute.

When the institute opened five years later, Campbell praised it as “a building where the architecture is superb precisely because there’s hardly any architecture at all.”

As it had signed a non-compete contract with its larger neighbor, the institute “is as minimalist as it is because its creators have worked hard to keep it simple,” Campbell wrote.

The Edward M. Kennedy Institute and the JFK Library are “near each other but don’t touch. The institute is smaller, but it’s been composed of white shapes similar to those of the JFK. The architecture embodies a metaphor: These two buildings are brothers, one younger, one older, one a senator and one a president.”

Born in Uruguay, on June 1, 1944, Rafael Viñoly was the son of Roman Viñoly Barreto, a film and theater director, and Maria Beceiro, who taught mathematics, according to a biographical sketch on the website of Lehman College in the Bronx, N.Y.

Mr. Viñoly initially considered becoming a professional pianist. He also played cello and flute, and told an interviewer in 2011 that he kept two pianos in his New York office and one in his London office.


He studied at the University of Buenos Aires and at age 20, before graduating, he became a founding partner in 1964 of Estudio de Arquitectura, a firm that achieved prominence designing buildings in South America.

After a military junta took over Argentina in 1976, he moved to the United States with his family. Initially lecturing at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, he settled in New York, where he founded Rafael Viñoly Architects, whose first major project was the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the city.

Among the prominent designs for buildings and spaces that Mr. Viñoly and his firm created were the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, the home of Jazz at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, the Tokyo International Forum, and 20 Fenchurch Street in London, whose shape earned it the nickname “the walkie-talkie.”

A committee reviewing proposals to rebuild at Ground Zero in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks destroyed the World Trade Center towers chose an entry by Mr. Viñoly and Frederic Schwartz, but George Pataki, then New York’s governor, overruled the choice and picked another architect’s design.


Known for his affection for glass and curved roofs in his designs, Mr. Viñoly also built a structure in Water Mill, on Long Island, N.Y., to house his piano collection.

“I spent countless rich and meaningful hours with Rafael,” wrote the architect David Rockwell in a New York Times tribute after Mr. Viñoly died. “But to really understand him, I’d have to meet him twice: first as an architect and, many years later, as a musician.”

Mr. Viñoly’s survivors include his son, Roman; his wife, Diana, who is an interior designer; two stepsons, Nicolas and Lucas Michael; a granddaughter; and three step-grandchildren.

His firm said a memorial service in New York will be announced.

Among other details, the Boston convention center was notable for “a huge canopy [that] thrusts far out over the Summer Street sidewalk, looking rather like the visor of a Red Sox cap,” Campbell wrote.

“The distinction between the building as sculpture or the building as a functional element, for me, is a completely artificial dilemma,” Mr. Viñoly said in a 2011 National Library of Medicine interview. “Architecture is about how the working of the building is capable of improving your own attitude towards the work.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.