Monday, March 30, 2009

Gehry Leaks

News went out on March 19, 2009 that the Frank Gehry-designed Forest City Ratner Beekman Tower now under construction might cease construction at about half its originally planned height. (See and hear: WNYC’s Downtown Housing Complex May Downsize, by Matthew Schuerman, March 19, 2009.) Funny thing is it was just two weeks before that we happened to be wondering about possible problems with the Beekman’s construction for an entirely different reason when No Land Grab* directed our attention to a story in the Toronto Globe and Mail about how the new the new Frank Gehry-designed Art Gallery of Ontario was leaking. The Globe article included a picture of museum artwork by Giuseppe Penone covered with plastic with buckets set up on the side to catch water (see the image on the side) and it said that buckets dotted the Museum’s “famed Douglas fir central staircase, catching errant drips.” (See Gehry Partners image of the staircase from an Ouroussoff Times article we have talked about and will talk about again here.)

(* See: No Land Grab’s March 5, 2009, Moisture plagues 'impermeable' gallery, Toronto Globe and Mail, by James Bradshaw or read the original article Moisture plagues 'impermeable' gallery, Buckets line AGO's signature Douglas fir staircase, while condensation blurs view from windows, James Bradshaw, March 3, 2009.)

Adding to the List of Gehry Projects With Leak Problems: The MIT Stata Center . . .

This new report added the Art Gallery of Ontario to the list of Gehry-designed projects where there have been problems with leaks. As the Globe article wrote:

The leaks and condensation problems at the AGO have dredged up memories of a negligence lawsuit that ensnared its architect, Frank Gehry, in late 2007 after another of his designs, at MIT, became cracked, leaky and mouldy.

. . . And the Bard Campus Fisher Performing Arts Center

We have also written about similar problems with roof leaks at the $62 million Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts that Gehry designed for Bard College. We reported having it explained to us that:

. . . . there was a problem with the five-year-old roof because Gehry’s design specifications did not take into account the variability of the climate.
(See: Monday, January 19, 2009, A Fable for Our Times: Gehry and the Spirit of the Land.)

Gehry Blames “Value Engineering”

In that article where we wrote about the leaks at the Fisher Performing Arts Gehry designed for Bard College we also wrote about how Gehry attributed leaks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s 2004 $300 million Stata Center to:

“value engineering” — the process by which elements of a project are eliminated to cut costs — was largely responsible for the problems.
The MIT building is the one Gehry once said “looks like a party of drunken robots got together to celebrate” and according to the Times reporting on the lawsuit brought by MIT against Gehry within months of the center’s opening, it essentially started coming apart, with “considerable masonry cracking” in the amphitheater’s seating areas. (The builder said that the construction was not the issue.) (See: M.I.T. Sues Frank Gehry, Citing Flaws in Center He Designed, by Robin Pogrebin and Katie Zezima, November 7, 2007. Image below is from MIT Sues Frank Gehry Over Design of Celebrity Architect's 'Party of Drunken Robots' Building, Monday, November 12, 2007.)

Gehry Designs with “Value Engineered” Future in Store

Gehry’s blaming of the leaks on “value engineering” for causing the problems is especially interesting for several reasons. Gehry is no longer working on Forest City Ratner’s planned Atlantic Yards and laid off those on his staff who worked on it. It is therefore not at all clear how much, if any, of Gehry’s previous design work would be used if any version of that project ever goes forward but there is talk about how whatever does go forward will be “value engineered.” (See: Thursday, March 26, 2009, Paging Lillian Hellman: on WFAN, Nets' Yormark does damage control on Gehry, reaching new depths of suspicious spin and Friday, January 09, 2009, As FCR scales back arena cost, Gehry's role recedes; ESDC, which once touted architect, says developer controls aesthetics.)

There are also indications that the Beekman Tower will be subject to value engineering or similar cost saving measures if its originally planned upper half is ever built. (According “Joyce Baumgarten, spokesperson for Forest City. . . the addition of new floors had paused so Forest City could look for ways to save money, possibly by re-bidding construction contracts.” Ratner says Gehry tower will keep rising, by Julie Shapiro, April 2, 2009.)

Gehry thinks that “value engineering” results in problems like leaks- - at least when it comes to his own designs. So?

Gehry Reassessment Time

Our January article, A Fable for Our Times: Gehry and the Spirit of the Land, suggested that it is time for a reassessment of Gehry as an architect. Interestingly, we used commentary by Nicolai Ouroussoff about the newly opened Art Gallery of Ontario to make our point that reviewers like Ouroussoff, with a blind spot for Gehry, praising him for the wrong things. We pointed out that Ouroussoff was treating the value of Gehry’s work as being based upon a personal “journey of psychological revelation.” It seemed like an indulgence even before we knew that the building Ouroussoff was talking about would leak. Back then, (though we knew other buildings leaked), we were mainly worried that Gehry’s self-absorption would takes things off-track by shortchanging the public in other ways. (See: Gehry Puts a Very Different Signature on His Old Hometown’s Museum, by Nicolai Ouroussoff, November 14, 2008.)

Time Spent With Gehry

The blind spot that we think that Ouroussoff and other reviewers like Ada Louise Huxtable have for Gehry may come from spending personal time with Gehry. We noticed that this weekend in the Times, Ouroussoff worked into an article time he spent with Gehry in LA:

. . . . In the early 1990s Frank Gehry and I took a drive down the city’s once-great commercial spine, which stretches 16 miles from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica.

Mr. Gehry guided me through the range of communities that the boulevard intersects, from the Latino neighborhoods near MacArthur Park to Koreatown to the many cultural institutions that include the Wiltern Theater, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Hammer Museum . . . .

Mr. Gehry suggested that by concentrating more public transportation and cultural institutions along this thoroughfare, Los Angeles might finally find its center, both geographically and socially.

(See: Reinventing America’s Cities: The Time Is Now, by Nicolai Ouroussoff, March 25, 2009.)

Climactic Events?

Dealing with the challenge of local climates seems to be a problem for Mr. Gehry. In theory, it shouldn’t have been a problem for him to remember to take into account the climate in Toronto where the art gallery is now leaking even though it was his first commission in his hometown. Mr. Ouroussoff stressed, in his review of the art gallery, how significant it must have been for Mr. Gehry that the commission was in his hometown. On the other hand it was Gehry’s first commission in his hometown. It is not just inclemency and seasonal cold that is a problem for Mr. Gehry. Even in LA he had problems where the skin of his Disney Concert Hall had to be abraded because its reflection of too much concentrated sun created a problematic amount of heat on the walkways outside.

Should a Predication Be Made?

But it was the leaks that got us thinking about the Beekman before there was news of its most recently revealed problems. Thinking of these leaks we were looking at the Beekman and wondering just what will happen when it is built.

Here is prediction that somebody should perhaps be making about the Beekman. Have you watched the way water runs down mountainsides in a heavy rainstorm? Look at how the Beekman facade has channels that will collect rivuleting water into expanding streams, especially when pushed around by wind. We really can’t help ourselves; we are expecting that there may be water problems at the Beekman. As water cascades down the side of the building where will the water go? Leaks into the building’s interior may not be the only problem.

That’s what we were thinking before word came out that the Beekman may be redesigned and built at only half its originally planned height. Where are we now? All we can say is happy value engineering!

Of course, we don’t know. We haven’t studied the plans and specifications for the building. We have not asked the engineers questions and we are not engineers ourselves. In fact, we don’t even know what is ultimately going to be built. But when Ouroussoff was lauding the Toronto Art Gallery did he expect it to leak? Did MIT expect their leaks or Bard College theirs?

Whatever gets built, a short Beekman or a tall one, perhaps we should all make a date to visit the Building and see what is happening to it the first formidably inclement day after it is officially complete. We plan to bring an umbrella.

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