Rafael Viñoly, who heads the THINK consortium of four architects, was born in Uruguay, set up practice in Argentina and escaped the political repression of the military regime in 1979 by moving to New York. His competitor for the Ground Zero redevelopment, Daniel Libeskind, has an equally fascinating background. He was born in Poland in 1946, has lived in Israel, England and New York, and now runs a practice in Berlin. Both architects have a lifelong passion for music, and showed promise as concert pianists before turning to careers in architecture.
Being a recent immigrant has given Manhattan-based Viñoly a keen appreciation of the city. He says: "I came to New York by choice, as I thought this was the place to be. I needed to go beyond a fascination of the place, and understand and value it. So I think I know the place well now – how it works, its tempo, the way people think. I see it as a place of change, of overcoming adversity, of pushing forward, of optimism."
Yet Viñoly, 58, is no solitary romantic struggling to create a personal vision out of the anguish of 11 September. Quite the opposite: he embraces collaboration with relish. For the World Trade Centre project, his consortium brings together four design practices and three engineers from across the world, several of whom he has not worked with before. They include Tokyo's paper construction wizard Shigeru Ban, British engineers Arup and Buro Happold, and German engineer Schlaich Bergermann.
"Collaboration is an arduous thing to do, and there's a lot of friction," he admits. "At the same time, the problem at ground zero is vast and complex, particularly in the conceptual phase, and the degree of true collaboration we have is a lot more useful.
I think I know New York well now – its tempo, the way people think. I see it as a place of change, of overcoming adversity, or pushing forward, of optimism
"We have had intense brainstorming meetings on wider issues than design and engineering," he continues. "We've gathered together bright minds from various disciplines and asked what the city really needs. It's not easy to look beyond the present reality of the tragedy and think about the situation 25 years from now."
Tony McLaughlin, Buro Happold's mechanical engineer responsible for sustainability on the project, found the sessions inspiring. "It was a free-for-all: we were encouraged to give our views about planning, architecture and whatever," he says. "To me, Viñoly is a class architect in the sense of style and ideas – but there was no preconception that this was his scheme or anyone else's. Everybody felt a great burden of responsibility to develop a site that had a lot of emotion attached to it. This had the effect of gelling the team – it was not about self-interest."
The World Trade Centre collaboration takes place against a much broader background of public consultation, through a deluge of more than 50 public hearings and 12,000 recorded comments, many with that in-your-face directness that New Yorkers revel in. Here again, Viñoly takes a positive view, comparing the public consultation process to working on an extended team. "For communities to articulate their concerns is not just helpful, but crucial, as it generates a level of ownership. Even negative comment is helpful, as you get an idea of what people are concerned about. You have to take these things very seriously, and develop patience and a lot of techniques to filter all the views."
So far Viñoly has had a lower profile in Britain than his World Trade Centre rival Daniel Libeskind, whose Berlin practice designed the Imperial War Museum North in Salford and the proposed Spiral at the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington. Viñoly's London office, which he set up in 1999, has no completed buildings to show off. His project to build a concert hall beneath Jubilee Park on London's South Bank, part of a masterplan drawn up by Rick Mather, was vetoed last year by local residents.
However, in Leicester, where the practice won a competition for a £26m performing arts centre, the response from what Viñoly calls "a wonderful group of clients – the city council, local residents and local companies" is more positive. He explains: "The time when projects were controlled by a single king or patron has long passed – there are so many stakeholders and so many issues." The London team also has an office tower outside Amsterdam on its drawing boards.
The practice's track record consists mainly of cultural buildings and commercial office blocks, and these two building types have been neatly combined in his World Trade Centre proposal. The idea is to slot a museum and other cultural nuggets into twin towers of open latticework that will directly replace the original ones, and then encircle them with a cluster of hard office towers. This mixed-use building project has also grown out of the architect's "outsider" perception of Manhattan, which he describes as "total amalgams of commercial, cultural and residential construction".
THINK twice: A tower-for-tower replacement
architects Rafael Viñoly
Landscape Architects/Shigeru Ban Architects
structural engineer Arup/Schlaich Bergermann und Partner
services engineer Arup
environmental engineer Buro Happold
Pointed rival: Libeskind’s symbolic needle
architect Studio Libeskind
engineers Arup/Irwin Cantor/RWDI
urban planner Gary Hack
landscape architect Hargreaves Associates
traffic engineer Jeff Zupan