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Friday
Sep242010

Pardon Us, But Our Museum Is Falling Apart

Original Article 

By: Eric Felton

In May, the London-based architectural engineering firm Ove Arup & Partners collected an award from the International Association of Lighting Designers for their work on the addition to the Art Institute of Chicago's Modern Wing. The year before, the company's engineering work on that same Renzo Piano-designed building earned an award of merit in an international Excellence in Structural Engineering competition.

This week the company found itself getting some rather less flattering attention for the project. The Art Institute of Chicago filed suit in federal court accusing the Arup firm of slipshod work, and asking for $10 million to cover the cost of needed fixes.

Some of the complaints in the lawsuit are mundane—about cracks in slabs of concrete flooring. Some represent a fundamental problem for an art museum—an air-conditioning system accused of causing condensation.

But some of the alleged defects are peculiar to the modern quest for splashy trophy architecture, in which strange and untested designs lead to unforeseen problems. A roof of metal blades described as a "Flying Carpet" threatened to produce what the lawsuit calls "a noticeable whistling sound on windy days." In Chicago, that could be a problem.

It would be a mistake to assume that ineptitude or negligence is behind any snafus. Arup is highly regarded. Instead, it seems to be the very nature of showbizzy modern architecture that it entails costly fixes, during construction and after.

As Catesby Leigh reported in the Wall Street Journal last year, the marble skin of the National Gallery's East Building, designed by I.M. Pei, is buckling. The Washington museum is expected to have to spend some $85 million to refit every panel of the building's exterior.

Frank Lloyd Wright with a Guggenheim model, 1945.

Three years ago, MIT sued architect Frank Gehry for negligence, complaining that the school's new Stata Center was a functional catastrophe, leaky, moldy and prone to dangerous avalanches of ice from the roof. The builder, Skanska USA Building, was also named in the suit (which was settled last year), and moaned that it wasn't their fault. "We were told to proceed with the original design," a Skanska spokesman said at the time. "It was difficult to make the original design work."

Making unconventional designs work proves to be costly. Architect Santiago Calatrava's addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum was originally supposed to cost $35 million. But there were monumental difficulties in working out the intricate machinery of the building's kinetic, sail-like structure, and the bill ultimately came out to $125 million.

There is a fundamental conflict in the building of landmark edifices, says Dana Sherman, who teaches engineering law at the University of Southern California. The museum and concert-hall clients "expect art in the outcome," and yet "they also expect engineering precision and certainty in the fabrication." Radically designed buildings are essentially massive inventions produced and sold without prototypes. Is it any surprise they tend to be glitchy?

There have always been building failures (you would not want to have been standing in the choir of the Beauvais Cathedral the evening of 29 Nov., 1284). But the impractical nature of much current architecture has made it a pressing modern problem.

"The forms of traditional buildings, such as pitched roofs and moldings, almost always contribute to proper weathering, shedding water, and protecting the structure," says Steven W. Semes, a professor of architecture and academic director of Notre Dame's Rome Studies Program. "Modern buildings often assume shapes that do the opposite, directing water into the building rather than away from it."

Blame Frank Lloyd Wright. He established the architectural template for the towering artistic genius who is impervious to dreary practicalities. One client called Wright on a rainy night to complain that water was dripping on him right where he sat; the great architect is said to have responded: "Why don't you move your chair a little bit to one side?"

When Seagram was looking to build its landmark skyscraper in New York, the leading contenders for the gig included Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. In a memo, a company executive raved that, if hired, "Frank Lloyd Wright will undoubtedly design the most unique building in New York and it will surely be good architecture—it will have advertising value."

But then he went on to list what hiring Wright entailed: The engineering of the building would have to be "worked up" during construction. And even with hiring outside engineers and architects, you could expect to get the skyscraper equivalent of a British roadster: "The roof will probably leak; the heating system and the lights probably won't work." If it ever gets finished, the executive warned, "it will cost twice as much as any other building."

Seagram went with Mies, and more's the pity. But the executive's memo demonstrates that clients eager for startling architectural spectaculars know the score. Lawsuits notwithstanding, owners of impossible modern buildings are simply getting what they pay for, and pay for, and pay for.

Corrections and Amplifications

The roughly $125 million cost of building the Milwaukee Art Museum beyond its original $35 million budget included significant additions to the building, such as a suspension footbridge, an underground parking garage and landscaping. This article suggests that the cost overruns were due to difficulties achieving the original design.

Write me at EricFelten@wsjtaste.com

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