Founding partner Rafael Viñoly
Noah Kalina Founding partner Rafael Viñoly

The financial markets were not the only business sectors to experience what Alan Greenspan called “irrational exuberance” over the last few years: The architecture world had a bubble of its own, characterized by rock star designers with global practices that produced breathtaking forms at a breakneck pace.

The work of Rafael Viñoly and his eponymous 200-person firm certainly has its share of glamour (and has received the awards to prove it). But despite its namesake’s considerable renown, the firm has never fit comfortably into the starchitecture category—or any other, for that matter. Despite its offices in New York, London, and Los Angeles, Rafael Viñoly Architects (RVA) is not a standard corporate practice producing respectable office towers, hospital wings, and college buildings; nor is it, as the most profitable of the Architect 50, a specialty boutique firm with rarified aesthetics and an air of academia.

Viñoly already had a large practice in Buenos Aires when he decided to resettle in New York in 1979, but in many ways had to start afresh when he founded the new firm four years later. His first major project in New York, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (1988), was followed a year later by a career-making commission for the Tokyo International Forum in Japan. In 2000, the Van Andel Institute for Cancer Research opened in Grand Rapids, Mich., the first of many scientific and medical research facilities RVA has since designed.

With current projects ranging from a glassy office tower in London to a police precinct stationhouse on Staten Island, N.Y., and an expansion of the Cleveland Museum of Art, RVA has managed to bridge the gap between rigid categories by trying consciously to avoid them.

“The pendulum swing between architects seeing themselves as artists or as technicians exacts a high price on the profession,” Viñoly says. “Architects do architecture, which is a very complex thing in itself.”

Striking the balance between firmness, commodity, and delight is no easier now than it was in Vitruvius’ day, but for Viñoly, a place to start is with an understanding of what the profession can and should do: “Architects have the capacity to redefine the program, to advance the aspirations of a given set of requirements. If you ignore those requirements to satisfy an aesthetic agenda—not that you shouldn’t have one—you end up with an object of consumption.”

Although it’s hard today to find anyone willing to defend such objects, that may end when the recession does. Until then, the firm will be busy with civic and institutional projects, and Viñoly’s pragmatic approach to design seems as rational as it gets.