The Hubris of a Great Artist Can Be a Gift or a Curse

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, November 24, 2007

Architects, like novelists and film directors, sometimes produce successes and sometimes not. In either case, creative hubris -- an excess of confidence or pride -- can be a contributing factor. Consider, for example, two noteworthy projects designed by the celebrated architect Frank Gehry.

Gehry's 10-year-old Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, which I visited for the first time last month, is a great aesthetic success. The museum's setting -- where Bilbao's river, roads, bridges, tramway line, downtown and public gardens converge -- is a broad, urban valley. Gehry's exploding, irregular forms, gigantic in scale, fit the setting well, paradoxically unifying an otherwise vast, chaotic, disordered context.

The museum's interior is likewise a tour de force. A soaring, many-faceted atrium, framed with planes of glass and angled steel columns, serves as the museum's conceptual center, through which visitors circulate. Most of the galleries, whose rectilinear shapes do not mirror the exterior, are deployed at different floor levels and positions around the atrium.

Like much of Gehry's work, the volumetric, spatial and structural geometry of the building is magical and somewhat unfathomable.

A few years after Bilbao, Gehry designed a building for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the $300 million Stata Center, on the north edge of the main campus in Cambridge, Mass. The Stata Center's classrooms, laboratories, conference rooms and offices serve students, teachers and researchers engaged in "intelligence sciences," including information technology, linguistics and philosophy.

A goal of the building's form and organization was to enable unplanned encounters and stimulate impromptu discourse among scholars in different disciplines.

The center opened with great expectations and fanfare in 2004. Sketches, computer-generated drawings and study models, which intended to explain the Stata Center's design, highlighted an extensive Frank Gehry exhibition at New York's Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. In 2004, the MIT Press published a book, "Building Stata," about the design and construction of the center. Since it opened, Stata's occupants have praised the building's effectiveness in fostering social and academic interaction.

But earlier this month, MIT -- my alma mater -- filed suit against the Los Angeles-based Gehry Partners and the Stata Center's general contractor, Skanska USA Buildinga New Jersey subsidiary of a Swedish company. MIT seeks unspecified damages for "design and construction failures" attributable to "pervasive leaks, cracks and drainage problems that have required costly repairs."

This lawsuit comes as no surprise.

The Stata Center is one of Gehry's most complicated and irrationally assembled buildings, a massive, three-dimensional collage of planes and volumes -- cubic, cylindrical, conic -- that have been bent, twisted, cranked, fractured, truncated or nested, then piled up and fused together. Tens of thousands of square feet of flat and curving surfaces are clad with dissimilar materials: stainless steel, copper, aluminum, brick, stucco, concrete and glass.

Squint your eyes, and the Stata Center looks like a collection of buildings on a city block after an earthquake. It makes the Bilbao museum's composition look simple by comparison.

When I visited the Stata Center not long after it opened, I recall, I thought about how lucrative the waterproofing contract would be for this building. Thousands of linear feet of seams and joints would need to be sealed and resealed to keep out moisture and ward off the effects of expansion and contraction. The center will always be vulnerable to Mother Nature's attacks.

To date, news reports primarily list symptoms: faulty drainage, ice and snow issues, exterior mold, masonry cracks, and joint and water infiltration problems. It's too early to know if these problems are the result of design errors, construction errors or both. Finger-pointing already has begun. Nevertheless, it's likely that problems will be attributed ultimately to both design and construction mistakes.

Why is this sad story in the news? After all, you can find leaks, cracks and mold in every building. This is not just another lawsuit by another disgruntled owner with moisture woes. MIT, one of the world's leading universities and home of America's first architecture school, has built many unusual buildings on its campus. Gehry, a world-famous architect, has designed many unusual buildings. And Skanska, among the world's most reputable building contractors, has constructed many unusual buildings.

How could this team of smart, talented and experienced people create an edifice destined to cause trouble? Did no one question the architectural design, not to mention the extraordinary measures needed to implement and sustain it?

MIT's lawsuit will lead to analysis of Stata's defects by outside experts, elicit opinions about the origin of the defects and yield a list of proximate causes. Maybe hubris should be on the list.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.


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