News
12.05.2007
Shocked, Shocked About Leaks
MIT sues but architects have heard it all before

Officials from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) went to Boston’s Suffolk County Courthouse on October 31 to file a lawsuit against architect Frank Gehry and contractor Skanska. The claim: Gehry’s design for the Ray and Maria Stata Center—for which he was paid $15 million—was defective and caused the university considerable damage.

The building, which opened in the spring of 2004, featured Gehry’s characteristic flourishes and unconventional angles, and was meant to support interactions among faculty and students in computing, information science, artificial intelligence, linguistics, and philosophy. What critics called “daring” and “bold” at the time, MIT eventually found to be nothing short of problematic. The lawsuit alleges “persistent leaks at various locations throughout the building,” along with “masonry cracking, efflorescence, and poor drainage” in the amphitheater, and “mold growth” on the exterior elevations.

Calling the lawsuit a “great surprise and disappointment,” Gehry said, “I fully stand behind the center’s design and have no reason to believe that it contributed in any way to the problems, which are relatively minor and easily addressed.”

In a 2004 Architectural Record interview about the Stata Center’s budget, which ran approximately $85 million over its original $200 million estimate, Gehry said, “we value-engineered, cut things, bit bullets.” He is now suggesting that the “cut things” include devices that would have prevented leaking. The leaks—at least 38 of them—were first reported in the Boston Globe, just six months after the official opening on May 1.

In repairs done in 2006 and 2007, MIT ripped up the brick amphitheater to install a drainage mat at a cost of $1.5 million. The university is now seeking an unspecified amount for that procedure and for other necessary repairs.

Chicago-based Dennis Bolazina, who is licensed in both architecture and law, and who is a member of the AIA documents committee, which monitors these issues, said, “this is really not that unusual.”

“Frank Gehry does a lot of buildings, and a lot of them are successful,” he said. “The problem for architects,” he continued, “is that they have to rely on other people like structural engineers and construction managers, and with many projects, architects are relieved of their duties during construction.”

Bolazina stressed that “architects need to be very closely involved in the construction phase of the project, maintaining communication and attention throughout it.” He added that, “More than 90 percent of these cases will be settled before they go to court, since most building professionals would rather negotiate in arbitration, where they can deal with people who have knowledge of what the realities of construction are, and not a judge, who would have to determine a standard of care.”

This situation is by no means unique. No sooner had the opening festivities ended at Daniel Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum than construction crews were on its roof repairing the building’s many leaks. And Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy is famously subject to routine patchwork.

Signifying the issue’s longstanding importance, one of the earliest written legal documents, Hammurabi’s Code from ancient Babylon, specifically addresses the issue—but with higher stakes. It specifies that “if a builder build a house … and this house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder should be put to death.” It also says that if an architect “does not make its construction meet the requirements and a walls fall in, that builder shall strengthen that wall at his own expense.” Thirty-eight hundred years later, this is what MIT and Gehry must sort through.

John Gendall