When a huge piece of a starchitect-designed building comes crashing to the ground, the architectural world tends to notice. We are of course talking about the recent reaction to the 176-pound piece of concrete that fell off Zaha Hadid’s Library and Learning Centre at Vienna University of Economics and Business. Making matters worse for Hadid, this is the second time the building has shed a piece of its skin. But Zaha is not alone; shed(-ding) happens.
As we wait to hear what exactly happened in Vienna – an initial report suggests the issue stems from “defective installation” of the facade – we put together a list of some other starchitect buildings that have, let’s say, lost a little bit of themselves.
First, let’s go back in time—back to 1970s Boston when Henry Cobb‘s Hancock Tower is straight-up dropping 500-pound glass panes (at least 65 of them) onto the city below like in some sort of horror movie where buildings have rejected their human creators. Terrifying stuff. In a Pulitzer Prize–winning story, the Boston Globe reported on what exactly caused the building’s window system to catastrophically fail:
Each panel was a sandwich: two layers of glass with an air space between, all held in a metal frame. To cut the glare and heat of the sun, a coat of reflective chromium was placed on the inside surface of the outside pane of glass. (This layer of chrome was what gave the building its mirror effect.) The window frame was bonded to the chrome with a lead solder. During the testing, it was noticed that when a window failed, the failure began when a tiny J-shaped crack appeared at the edge of an outside pane of glass. What was happening was this: The lead solder was bonding too well with the chrome—so well, so rigidly, that the joint couldn’t absorb any movement. But window glass always moves. It expands and contracts with changes in temperature, and it vibrates with the wind. So the solder would fatigue and crack. The crack would telegraph through to the glass, and the cycle of failure would begin.
Next we turn to Santiago Calatrava–the Spanish architect with a penchant for creating soaring buildings that are often accompanied by soaring budgets; for more on that, just Google Santiago Calatrava. Great. But right now let’s focus on his Queen Sofía Palace of the Arts that opened in Valencia in 2005. The structure, which CityLab perfectly described as a mix between a bird’s skull and a stormtrooper’s helmet, had to be repaired because pieces of its tile mosaic facade were blowing off in high winds.
And then just last year in London, two steel bolts the size of human arms dislodged from Richard Rogers‘ Leadenhall Building, which is better known as the “Cheesegrater.” Thankfully, nobody was injured from the incident. But that’s not the end of the Cheesegrater bolt story. As recently as last week, it was reported that a third bolt had fractured on the building. British Land, a developer of the building, said in a statement that the broken piece was “captured by precautionary tethering put in place last year.” That’s good. After some tests, it was concluded that “bolts had fractured due to a material failure mechanism called Hydrogen Embrittlement.” Many bolts are now being replaced, but the developer insists there is, “no adverse effect on the structural integrity of the building.”
Now, let’s head back stateside to Chicago. Do you remember that time the glass coating on the Willis Tower’s observation deck cracked? If you were the tourists standing on the SOM-designed attraction 1,353 feet above the city you probably do. Sure, while everyone was fine and nothing was structurally wrong, just imagine being the people up there when that happened—just imagine that.
Of course this list of high-profile architects would find its way to Frank Gehry. A while back the most famous architect of them all was sued by MIT for supposed flaws in his $300 million Stata Center. While pieces of the building didn’t fall off, it was said to have leaks, cracks, and drainage problems. “These things are complicated,” Gehry told the New York Times after the suit was filed, “and they involved a lot of people, and you never quite know where they went wrong. A building goes together with seven billion pieces of connective tissue. The chances of it getting done ever without something colliding or some misstep are small.”
And now let’s end this list where we started it, with Zaha Hadid. Just a year after her dramatic Guangzhou Opera House opened in China, it began showing problems—lots of problems. In 2011, the Guardian reported that “large cracks have appeared in the walls and ceilings, glass panels have fallen from [Opera House] windows, and rain has seeped relentlessly into the building.” In fairness to Zaha, the Wall Street Journal noted that when it comes to construction practices in China, architects have little say.