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01.18.2006
Vinoly sued over Kimmel Center
Client claims damages for construction delays and cost overruns

 After months of mediation, Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts sued the building’s architect, Rafael Viñoly, for breach of contract. The suit, filed on November 23 in U.S. District Court, alleges that Viñoly’s office, Rafael Viñoly Architects (RVA), failed to provide timely and complete construction documents, resulting in delays and cost overruns.

“RVA breached the Agreement and failed to perform in accordance with the professional standards of care it fixed for itself (highest professional standards of a nationally-recognized architectural firm) therein by, inter alia, providing late and deficient documents and drawings,” the suit states. 

The Regional Performing Arts Center (RPAC), which operates the Kimmel Center, claims that the delays cost the center $23 million, resulting in a total expenditure of $180 million. “This action arises from an architect who had a grand vision but was unable to convert that vision into reality,” the suit reads, “causing the owner to incur significant additional expenses to correct and overcome the architect’s errors and delays.”

The suit demands that RVA pay monetary damages, “an amount to be proven at trial but is in excess of $150,000.”

A Viñoly spokesperson, who requested anonymity because the firm had not yet replied to the suit in court, contested the allegations. “We are extremely displeased by the complaint. The same people who praised the building are now criticizing it.”

The Kimmel Center, which is home to the Philadelphia Orchestra, a dance company, and several other performing arts groups, opened to mixed reviews viñoly sued over kimmel center continued from front page in December 2001. While the building itself—which was not fully completed until mid-2002—received high praise, the main concert space, Verizon Hall, was panned by critics for its “acoustic coldness.”

The suit revolves less around the finished product—which it concedes “matched the grand vision of RPAC”—than the process. According to the suit, while Viñoly initially was to be paired with the Hillier Group, a local firm, that would convert the architect’s design into working documents, his office later insisted it could perform both roles.

However, the Kimmel Center alleges that RVA proved unable to deliver those documents in a complete and timely manner. According to the suit, the document delays in turn pushed back the bidding and contracting phases, reducing the steel erection time from 33 months to 17 months. The suit goes on to state that the compressed schedule, combined with document errors, entailed extensive post-construction repairs. Because the Kimmel Center’s opening gala involved such A-list performers as Elton John, the November 2001 completion date could not be pushed back. 

Both parties declined to explain why the mediation failed. The center’s lawyer, J. Bradford McIlvain, declined a request for comment.

While post-project, architect-client mediation is routine these days, it is uncommon for a client to sue an architect over the execution of a design. The suit strongly implies that Viñoly’s “starchitect” status permits the client to hold his office to a higher professional standard than would be expected of a lesser-known firm. “RVA represented and agreed that its performance was to be held and judged according to a higher standard of care than normally accorded professional architects and understood that RPAC was relying on RVA’s skills and expertise in connection with the design and construction of the Project,” the suit asserts.

The case is worth watching, given that cost and schedule overruns are not unusual in the world of high-end architecture. Frank Gehry’s Stata Center at MIT, for example, which opened last year, was $100 million over its initial $200 million budget, and Rem Koolhaas’ Seattle Public Library, which also opened last year, was eight months late and $8 million over its $157 million budget. 

What sets the Kimmel Center apart may be that critics hailed both Gehry’s and Koolhaas’ efforts, while the Kimmel received, at best, faint praise.

“The underlying complaint seems to be that Viñoly failed to deliver a show-stopper,” concluded critic Inga Saffron in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Viñoly’s lawyer, Richard Davies, an expert in construction and architectural liability, will respond to the suit on January 28. Davies did not return repeated requests for comment. 

Clay Risen