M.I.T. and Gehry

MIT is suing Frank Gehry for design flaws.  Frank Gehry who is one of the most renowned architects of our time.  My hat goes off to MIT.  Perhaps this lawsuit will force other architects to take a look at not only the final product but how the product works, how is it going to be possible to build, what are the structural possibilities, etc.

It is wonderful to see so many architects pushing the envelope to create exciting and different structures but can the contractors actually build them so that they are livable, don’t leak, air flows properly through them, the fabrications chosen have longevity based on the use of the building, etc.  I could ask a million questions.

There are many pieces of a puzzle when one builds a building.  Every one has their own set of skill sets that they bring to the project but there should be at least some understanding from an architect about the contractors expertise or any piece of the puzzles (subs etc) job.  What will really cost to build, what type of fabrics make sense, how will people live in it and how can a contractor actually build my vision.  That is where the disconnect happens. 

I always use the analogy to explain the disconnect between the architect and the contractor to people who have never been through the process before by explaining how to make a garment.  When you make a garment, it might appear to take only a yard of fabric but when you lay out the pattern and based on the width of the fabric, you realize that it actually take 2 yards not one to create the vision.  Architects see, contractors build. 

When you build a project, many times people start with an architect.  Then the architect helps you hire a contractor once the plans have been signed off on.  That is when you get out of bed with the architect and get into bed with the contractor.  The contractor can take a look at the plans and tell you where the holes are.  Also,  many architects like to hire outside people to do their lighting plans or other parts of the project.  Make sure you sit down with any of the outside hires to describe your vision too.   You’ll have better plans.  The more holes in the plans, the more opportunities the contractor has to charge you extra because what they bid on isn’t what they are able to build.   I always recommend hiring an owners rep for a big project because if they are good, they will know if the plans are buttoned up.  An owners rep is like having your own in house lawyer.  They make sure everyone sticks to schedule and budget.  They are also experts who are only representing your needs.

Ok, I have obviously had some experience with this.  Yet, each project is another experience.  I can’t help but be thrilled to see MIT sue Gehry because we have had our share of architect ego.  It isn’t pretty.  I have heard a variety of tales about architect hell particularly a few doozies with other renowned architects.  BTW, when there are problems in actually executing the plans, the cost may go up and the only one paying for the mistakes are you.  At one point, you look at the architect and say what pain are you going to take for this?  Are we going to pay you less for your folly?  The answer would be no. 

The details about MIT suing Gehry are due to an huge amount of money that MIT has had to pay to fix the problems due to design flaws.  Bravo to MIT.  Perhaps this law suit will set the wheels in motion for other ego maniacal architects that they will be held financially accountable for their poor vision and execution.

Comments (Archived):

  1. ellen

    I always wondered how Gerhy’s vision worked in real life. It is really amazing. His visiom could have been better suited for canvas, however.

    With architects, I found their vision sometimes is lacking in reality, but without their visions our landscapes would be very boring and mundane.

    Where was the structural engineers on the project and who was there to oversee the contractors? Those contractors can be a different breed. Many do not have pride in their work and do the bare minimum to get the job done, but not well done.

    As having done a small construction project I rely on no one person’s opinion and try to learn everything I can from foundation, concrete to wood types and heating and ac systems etc. Sort of what you said in your previous post. A jack of all trades but master of none. Knowing the right questions to ask and researching helps but it is incredibly time-consuming. One would think for a public building things would go smoothly, but they never do.

    We are building a new public high school in our town. It is estimated to be at least 155 million. We have Graham Gund doing the architecture and if I am not mistaken the same contractors MIT used(Beacon Skanska.) Our former school was only 29 yrs old but had many design flaws from the last architect and contractors so here comes the wrecking ball. Wait until you see this new school? We really, as a town, can’t afford it, but it is going up anyway. As I was watching a clip on local cable about the brick patterns and install for the exterior walls, One of our alderman and a brick layer for many years had some concerns about the wall details, flashing etc. The project managers and architect’s representantive just laughed his concerns away. Oh, that will be taken care of by caulk. (Caulk expands and shrinks and gets old and is really not a permanent solution for a water problem for a building that has yet to go up.) This particular alderman made sense but no one was listening. He had only been a mason for 40 yrs with a highly respected company. So this is why projects go awry.

  2. jackson

    As a recovering architect I feel compelled to comment. Firstly, I feel no need to defend Frank Gehry. It is however critical to understand something about architects and contractors. They need to be a team, and they both bring specific kinds of expertise to any project. What fascinates me is that while architects and their tools have evolved greatly over the last 100 years, and we have seen phenomenal changes in the ability of architects to envision form, model space, understand the ability of nature (lighting, heating, cooling) to impact human habitation, construction technology and methodology in the United States has remained essentially unchanged for over 100 years.
    Architecture needs to change to reflect the needs of society – particularly when it comes to resource use and the integration of new technology into our buildings. But construction may well be the most hidebound of all industries. Less than 1/10 of 1% of construction revenue goes into R&D. Imagine that in any other industry. There are amazing new materials and technologies available to us, but the typical construction firm, much less the typical sub-contractor, remains oblivious and still uses tools and techniques that Romans would recognize.
    I don’t know enough about this particular project to begin to assign blame. And water is one of the most devilish substances known when it comes to complicated assemblies. But what we are starting to see in the world of new buildings is that our needs, our desire to create a more beautiful and varied world, and our ability to design this are rapidly outpacing our ability to build them. Cross this with our need to design less resource intensive yet longer lasting buildings that use less energy more effectively, and you have either a crisis, or an enormous opportunity for innovation.
    Additionally, and I apologize for the rant, the process by which we bid projects is deeply flawed. We are slaves to the lowest bidder. Contractors know that drawings are never 100% complete. Yet they bid the drawings rather than the project. Who can blame them, their competitors will bid this way too. As a result the ‘errors and omissions’ in the drawings are no longer bid competitively and the project costs rise. A bidding system that reflects the true cost of a project would better serve us all. There are models for this but they are rarely used because it is too easy to accuse a public (or private) official of wasting money for not getting the lowest initial bid.
    And I can go on. My point is that the system is deeply flawed and needs systemic corrections. One last thing, and this is a defense of architects. As a society we tend to value the person who provides us a concrete product. The person who carries a new toilet into our home and presents us a bill for $500 provides a very visible and tangible service regardless of whether we think that might be a bit much for a toilet. The person who finds a way to re-design a bathroom so as to use the same or nearly the same amount of space but create a much more functional, enjoyable, even inspiring place delivers something which is typically appreciated in a much different way, and over a much different time frame. Normally, the person who provides a more conceptual service has a much more difficult time justifying the difficulty and cost of their services.

  3. Rafael PĂ©rez

    I agree with the blog author’s post. It seems problems in the education of architects have been surfacing everywhere in the past couple of weeks. In Spain, architect superstar Santiago Calatrava is simultaneously being sued/suing the townships of Bilbao and Valencia for negligence and alleged moral damages.

  4. Justin

    It would be much easier to make the case that this sort of suit is a harbinger of the mediocrity that defines current architectural discourse in the United States if this were a truly original building, but as it is, this particular project happens to be deep into Gehry’s portfolio. Clearly we all understand that the largest contribution that Gehry has made to the architectural community is related to building process and not to formal inquiry (as the general public typically perceives), and this building is by no means original, in the respect that the Guggenheim in Balboa was. This being said, being architects ourselves, we also understand the particularities and nuances of each individual building that we design, and given the relative complexity of the work, I would say that there is still a case to be made that the current emphasis on absolute system efficiency within the profession is diametrically opposed to what expectations should be made in the production of a building. Yes, MIT could have hired a nameless firm to do a building that would be watertight, with simple HVAC, and time tested T8 and can lighting, but honestly, who really wants that? Where does that get us? The point is that the academic institution (along with the museum, and the occasional budget less private ego driven venture) is one of the last places in existence where the abstract and potential of things are truly valued (or so I thought). It’s a question of the human spirit, and the necessary growing pains of innovation. Obviously we are not all ready to design with the technical rigor that Gehry and Partners has brought to the fore, but are you really willing to say that because the building has a few leaks that the entire architectural inquiry is invalid? I’m sorry, but this sort of situation reveals, and has the potential to promote, a stagnate, mediocre mentality towards the artful act of environmental design and construction. It takes a longer view to see the validity in an innovative undertaking, and I would expect an establishment like M.I.T, who without that attitude frankly would not exist, to respect all the baggage that comes with the decision to make honest progress.

    Also, here’s another blog that makes a similar argument from a slightly differing, and perhaps more relevant perspective.