The Uruguayan's idea of resurrecting New York's twin towers as refined replicas of their former selves was an attempt to imagine how the city would look in 25 years.We asked him where the inspiration came from
For americans, The reconstruction of New York's World Trade Centre has become a symbol of national resurgence in the face of terrorism. So, it is appropriate that the two teams chosen from the six who were invited to design a replacement for the twin towers represent a multicultural heritage that is quintessentially American.

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".

Personal effects

Can you tell us about your office in London? It’s in United House in Islington. We have a workspace next to structural engineer Dewhurst Macfarlane, who we work closely with on several projects. Where is your office in New York? In a converted printworks in SoHo, where Dewhurst Macfarlane rent some space from us. What is your favourite recreation? Playing classical music. I own five pianos; my favourite composers are Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart. Where do you keep your pianos? In a soundproof room in my New York apartment. And in my weekend retreat in the Hamptons, Long Island, I built a timber pavilion that serves as a piano rehearsal studio and recital hall.

THINK twice: A tower-for-tower replacement

The scheme by the Think team is the only one to replace the twin towers on the Manhattan skyline almost exactly as they were. The difference is that these are conceived as open lattice structures, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, leaving the original footprints untouched as memorials and icons of the city’s resurrection. Within these lattice structures, cultural facilities can be slotted, including a 9/11 museum and a performing arts centre. In a lower semicircle around the towers, a transportation centre and nine office and hotel towers are proposed.

Project team
architects Rafael Viñoly
Architects/Frederic Schwartz
Architects/Ken Smith
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

Daniel Libeskind’s scheme is dominated by a narrow skyscraper that culminates in a needle thrusting a full 30 m higher than the original towers. At the foot of the skyscraper, lower blocks in Libeskind’s distinct angular style cluster around two deep pits lined by rough concrete slurry left by the original twin towers. The scheme is potent with symbolism: the height of the skyscraper, at 1776 ft, represents the year of American independence. And the cluster of towers will be cleaved by a “wedge of light” that will be precisely angled so that no shadows will be cast over it on 11 September between 8.46am, when the first aeroplane hit the towers, and 10.28am, when the second tower collapsed.

Project team
architect Studio Libeskind
engineers Arup/Irwin Cantor/RWDI
urban planner Gary Hack
landscape architect Hargreaves Associates
traffic engineer Jeff Zupan