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07.12.2006
Eavesdrop: Philip Nobel

 Architects beware! It turns out it’s really hard to build stuff. This week we have two cautionary tales from the field—one tragic and the other, well, just a little soggy.

Since the rumor has been going around and around, perhaps you’ve already heard about the chaos at the new Institute of Contemporary Art building in Boston, a lovely Koolhaasesque design by our very own Diller Scofidio + Renfro? If so, you’ll know that the contractor is going bankrupt and the client is value-engineering on-the-fly as the thing, already well along as befits a building scheduled to open in mid-September, nears completion. Indeed, you may have also heard, as I did, that changes are being made without the architects’ input, Liz and Ric are “freaking,” and the ICA brass has even, at this very late date-god forbid-“lopped off a chunk” of it.

All bunk! Alas. But the truth is interesting, too. On April 3, two masons and a passing driver (stuck in afternoon traffic) were killed when scaffolding collapsed at another Boston construction site, a project for Emerson College on Boylston Street. The general contractor, Macomber Builders, which has gotten more than a few OSHA citations for serious scaffolding violations in recent years, is in predictably hot water: It is under investigation and is getting sued by at least one of the victim’s families. As a result, Macomber has circled the wagons and in the last few months its attention has drifted from other projects—including Discofro’s harborside museum. “There was definitely a lull,” Charles Renfro said, after dismissing the more spectacular stories making the rounds. “But now there’s no lull—it’s going gangbusters!” He said the September 17 opening is a go, he laughed off the idea of an excised “chunk,” and then he got all philosophical: “Construction sites are never paradise. Paradise doesn’t happen until the building is built.”

Tell that, my friend, to the poor sodden souls at Obra Architects, the young New York comers picked for this year’s Young Architects Program installation in the forecourt at P.S.1. After a frenzied construction campaign frustrated by our unfortunate June deluges, the series of plywood-ribbed and polyethylene-scaled “shells” opened and, you all may have heard as well, immediately started to melt. “It’s not melting!” Jennifer Lee, cofounder of the firm with Pablo Castro, protested when she was reached at the site during an emergency visit a few days after the opening. “It was in its completed vision for a few days and then some aspects of it had to be re-engineered.” As any visitor to Queens could see for themselves, the re-engineering included a hastily improvised system of cables, wooden posts, and stray pieces of plywood propping up the vision that the curators had likened, pre-construction, to “a giant albino python.” Lee said all would be made right—“We're looking forward to people coming back to see it in its new life”—and then she too waxed philosophical: “It was about trying to push the limits. There are ten shells altogether and in certain of them we possibly, conceivably, pushed the limits too far.”

So from this we may deduce the following: Construction is really complicated, disasters happen, but philosophy will always be there the save us. 

Philip Nobel