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MIT Sues Architect Frank Gehry.

November 12, 2007

Am in a quandary for which I have no possible answer, only questions and observations. As a sculptor I have been watching with intrigue the changes in public building design of late and have noticed that some by famous architects are looking more and more like, well, very large sculpture. For me this poses a bit of a dilemma. As much as I am drawn to 3D art, sculpture (all the fine arts) by its very nature has no function except for an aesthetic one; architecture on the other hand has a function, it is meant to house whatever it is supposed to house (profound, eh) in a design that is (hopefully) aesthetically pleasing and (supposedly) “functional.” Isn’t “form supposed to follow function” as espoused by Louis Sullivan?

The Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudi (who lived from the mid 19th to early 20th century), was strongly influenced by nature which he incorporated into his incredibly whacky and zany architecture, making the work more sculptural. Some of the newer designed buildings by Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind and Santiago Calatrava fall into the ‘changing look of architecture’ category, with Santiago Calatrava’s addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, Libeskind’s Jewish Holocaust Museum in Berlin and Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao Spain, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA and the Experience Music Project in Seattle, to name a few.

These buildings are sensations that have caused attendance to be greatly increased and in the case of Milwaukee it’s been one of the variables helping to change the city’s image for the better. For Bilbao, that once small town has seen such growth that eight new hotels have been built and Calatrava (a bridge) and Foster (the Metro) have added their heavy duty names to the list of projects developed there.

On reading that MIT is suing architect Frank Gehry because there are serious design flaws in a building he designed for that campus (it leaks, has some drainage problems as well as problems with mold growth), I started to think about other buildings designed by famous architects that have had major problems. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater leaked like a sieve (as did/do many of his buildings), Norman Foster’s Millennium Bridge over the Thames in London, a pedestrian bridge from St Paul’s Cathedral to the Tate Modern Art Museum, wobbled so much when it was opened that it was immediately closed for “improvements;” external ribs being installed to stabilize it. Many Londoners now refer to it as the Wobbly Bridge. I.M. Pei’s John Hancock Tower in Boston had a problem with its window panes falling and because of all the boarding up it required, was often referred to as the “Plywood Palace.”

To get back to my ‘architecture that looks more and more like sculpture’ issue, apparently Gehry likes to think of some of his work as sculpture; the problem with that is we don’t and can’t live in sculpture, because as stated in the beginning of this article, sculpture is not functional in the same way that architecture is.

Herb Zeller in the Globe states:

In the heady world of Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell, Gehry may be a hero for building a monument to himself on a corner of the monotonous MIT campus.
Campbell also said it is inevitable that there will be problems in any unconventional building like the Strata Center (at MIT), which has roofs colliding at different odd angles. “It looks like something out of a Disney cartoon,” he said. It’s really quite pleasurable and people like it, but it does involve some risks in that it’s impossible to keep it from leaking.”
The result, Campbell said, helped to break up the monotony of a street of concrete buildings.
“Because he’s so daring, you figure you’ve got to be daring too, if you’re a client, Campbell said. “you know if you hire Frank Gehry there are going to be new kinds of problems.” But he said clients accept the risks because “they’ll get a building like no other building.”

In the same Globe article, Ernest J. Dutra, Rumford, R.I. states:

I’ve spent most of my career of 43 years as a court reporter in public buildings, both old and new. It never ceased to amaze me and others how many of the new buildings, though beautiful to look at from the outside, were not functional inside.
Few, if any, of the people who had to work in these buildings every day were ever consulted or asked for their opinions.
I’ve often thought that there should be a master architectural plan for government buildings, colleges, and the like. When something doesn’t work well in the first building, the next structure would be changed accordingly. Sooner or later, perfection would be bound to occur; costs would be a known factor; money would be well spent; and the end product would be practical and efficient.

But that’s just too simple.

And boring.

Copyright © 2007

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