Lawsuit could bring scrutiny to U project

Some worry about the coming Weisman addition after the architect was sued.

by Liz Riggs

The announcement a week and a half ago – that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is suing legendary architect Frank Gehry, over what the school claims are substantial design flaws in a campus building completed in 2004, could have reverberations felt at the University.

In March, staff at the Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum on campus revealed plans for a major expansion.

The museum is currently working with Gehry and his Los Angeles-based architecture firm on the project, which is scheduled to begin next year. The University’s contribution for the mostly privately funded project is a $2 million matching gift.

John Allen, director of visitor services, security and building operations at the Weisman, said he was aware of the lawsuit against Gehry and the construction company that worked on MIT’s Stata Center, but said the Weisman has not experienced similar difficulties.

“I think we would know by now if there were any serious problems,” Allen said. “It’s withstood 14 or 15 winters now with no problems.”

The MIT suit alleges that architectural defects are responsible for mold growth, leaks, cracked masonry and drainage backup in the Stata Center, which required more than $1.5 million in repairs.

On the subject of the Stata Center problems, Allen said, “of course, you need to hear about things like that.”

“I’m sure that this will be taken into consideration,” Allen said about how the Stata Center’s alleged flaws could impact the Weisman’s own project, which is still in the schematic design stages, but added, “We have a good track record with Gehry.”

The Guardian Unlimited, a London-based news source, reported late last week that at least two of Gehry’s other university projects have run into major snags.

In 1986, one such building at the University of California-Irvine was torn down because of leaks.

Commenting on the situation with the Stata Center last week, Gehry told The New York Times: “These things are complicated and they involved a lot of people, and you never quite know where they went wrong. A building goes together with 7 billion pieces of connective tissue. The chances of it getting done ever without something colliding or some misstep are small.”

Bill Rinehart, a zone administrator for facilities management at the University, oversees several buildings on campus, including the Weisman.

“I’ve been in this zone for a year and a half. I’ve had no water leak issues,” Rinehart said of the Gehry-designed Weisman. “I don’t know what he built out there (at MIT) but the Weisman Art Museum has a humidity control on it because the artwork has to be kept at certain temperatures, so we have dryers in that building so that it’s not an issue.”

As the only Gehry-designed museum in the United States, the very nature of the building might actually help to safeguard it from leaks.

Weisman director Lyndel King said she doesn’t think the Stata Center suit will have significant bearing on the Weisman expansion, other than the fact that Gehry’s office might be a little more tied up because of the litigation.

King said she hasn’t had any donors pull out from the project, although she has received questions about the MIT situation from some of them.

“Most of our major donors are pretty sophisticated,” King said, and they understand the complexities involved in any architectural project.

“Designing a building is a collaborative process. It certainly was for us,” King said. “(Gehry) was always willing to listen. He always took our functional requests seriously.”

When there are problems with a design, King said, “I’ve always felt that you need to look at the client as much as the architect.”

No one at Frank Gehry and Associates Inc. could be reached for comment over the weekend.

Construction on the Weisman’s 11,000-square foot expansion is scheduled to be completed by 2009.