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CRITICAL ACCLAIM

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Last week New York-based Rafael Vi±oly lectured at the RIBA. Richard Waite met up with him to find out more about this prolific South American architect

'Now I have a question for you.' Rafael Vi±oly smiles at me. 'What are you going to do with all that?' Vi±oly is referring to the conversation we have just had. And he has a good point.

During the past hour we have discussed everything from political instability in South America, to the etiquette of Japanese drivers and even the joy of British Racing Green.

He has been only too happy to talk - which I'm glad about, because before today I knew little about the thinking behind the 60-year-old Uruguayan's designs.

But how many people in this country really do?

Images of his Tokyo International Forum building or the highly publicised proposals for the World Trade Center may be familiar.

As may pictures of him wearing more than one pair of glasses - today, for instance, he is sporting three pairs, including some sunglasses which are perched on the top of his head.

But even Vi±oly, who has been practising for nearly 40 years, admits he still has to reintroduce himself every time he lectures at the RIBA.

That could be about to change.

Work on his Leicester Theatre scheme is due to start in April, and the controversial Colchester Visual Arts Facility is set to go in for planning permission at the end of January.

Dubbed the 'Golden Banana' by its detractors, the Colchester scheme has caused a real stir, and spats about the proposed building continue to fill the pages of the local newspapers.

It seems the intensity of the debate came as something of a shock to the good-humoured Vi±oly. However the architect, who worked in Argentina and Uruguay before settling in New York with his family in 1979, is taking it all in his stride.

He says: 'There was a surprising amount of criticism but it was really cultivated. In America, critics are a lot more visceral yet less well informed.

'But the level of attention seems completely disproportional to the level of investment in the project.

He adds: 'It is a much more discursive process over here. At the same time it is wonderful and I think this exhaustive review process shows in the final architecture.' Having set up an office in London nearly four years ago, it is clear that whatever the perceived differences between America and the UK, Vi±oly has a soft spot for working in Europe.

And, though he has some issues with the 'civilised' British traffic, he genuinely seems to admire the country's architectural scene.

'The profession over here is in great shape - it is a fantastic moment for British architecture.

There is a design consciousness which is quite unique. American architecture is in a different phase. It is a much more performanceorientated culture.' He goes further: 'Britain is a very visual place.

No other European country is so conscious of colour, it's absolutely spectacular. Colour in America is very rare. We have the White House.

That's all.' Perhaps that explains the sunglasses.

One of the key aspects of Vi±oly's work which he is keen to export is a desire to improve the public realm.

During the past few years, he has been asked to build a number of new science and research centres for financially well-endowed universities. He is also masterminding the new multimillion-dollar Janelia Farm Research Campus in Virginia for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

In each case he has managed to sidestep the pitfalls of creating Ivory Towers for unseen academics by introducing civic space around, above and sometimes through his creations. He explains: 'Public realm doesn't mean you can have a barbecue on the roof of the building. But scientists need to have more communication with their peers. It's a very positive and healthy thing to have more interaction.' With this interest in science, it is not surprising that his own offices, which now employ nearly 170 people, have also embraced new technologies. He claims he was one of the first architects to use a satellite link - a tool which helped his New York team work around the clock on a project in Japan.

However, he warns that computer-led design can be dangerous without proper guidance. He says: 'It's fascinating to design buildings with such levels of plasticity but computers can be highly misused if you don't know what you are doing or using.

'That's why all buildings look like sneakers, because the computer programs come from software for designing sneakers.' It is clear from talking to Vi±oly that there is so much more to him than can be squeezed into a quick chat.

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