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« Best Line of the Day | Main | Armistice Day Musings »

November 12, 2007

What Ever Happened to "First Do No Harm"?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

MIT sues Frank Gehry. The school says that the goofily off-kilter Stata Center -- which Gehry designed and which has been lavishly praised by the architectural establishment -- is plagued by persistent leaks, cracks, and mold problems.

Gasp: Bizarro-chic new architecture that garners critical praise yet that fails in the most basic ways as pleasant and effective shelter -- now doesn't that come as a surprise?

From Wikipedia's entry on deconstructivist hero Peter Eisenman:

[Eisenman's 1989] Wexner Center, hotly anticipated as the first major public deconstructivist building, has required extensive and expensive retrofitting because of elementary design flaws (such as incompetent material specifications, and fine art exhibition space exposed to direct sunlight). Its spatial grammar of colliding planes also tends to make users disoriented to the point of nausea, and Eisenman has been known to chuckle in lectures about making people vomit.

Talk about high maintenance!

Buyer beware, of course. But it's probably a good idea for readers of the architectural press to beware too. What on earth is this crowd trying to put over on the rest of us?



posted by Michael at November 12, 2007


And readers who would like an in-depth version of the Wexner Center travails are directed to a book entitled Design by Competition by Jack Nasar. It's a persuasive case study of the Eisenman building, aiming its critical sights not only on the starchitect system but the breathless-with-anticipation high-stakes competitions that create a tilt in favor of a high-concept, high-cost, high maintenance, low-user fumctionality approaches.

Posted by: Fenster Moop on November 12, 2007 4:12 PM

This is a problem as old as Frank Lloyd Wright.

Posted by: Fred on November 12, 2007 4:38 PM

I think that what such architects are trying to say is: "We don't have to be constrained by the laws of nature, or by human tradition."

This is a very popular line of thought. For those of you who don't get it, feminist and gay activists have been saying the same thing for decades.

Note that I'm not arguing for the enslavement of women or burning gays at the stake.

The left has been arguing since... well, I don't know how to put a date on it. The Bolsheviks' "New Man" theory set this argument in place by 1917. The Khmer Rouge revised and updated this argument by declaring The Year Zero.

Utopian idealism stands behind this argument. Human life must be made perfect. The structures and traditions of the past do not enrich and inform us... we are enslaved by them.

These structures and traditions must be destroyed. The destroyers always guarantee us that there will be absolutely no long term cost for this destruction. They assure us that we will be guaranteed absolute freedom once they are finished with their destruction.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on November 12, 2007 5:07 PM

Clearly, I need to make more time to stay current regarding architecture. Because I entirely missed the Stata Center when it was built.

To me, it looks like it's a rip from the expressionist sets of the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

"Edgy is Beautiful," the Establishment is trying to tell us, it seems.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 12, 2007 6:54 PM


Actually, I'd compare Mr. Geary's work more to Toontown at Disneyland. Really.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 12, 2007 7:34 PM

John Silber, the smart former president of Boston University, has a new book coming out called "Architecture of the Absurd," in which he recalls a discussion he had many years ago with his professorial colleagues at the University of Texas in which he said something like "We may have a Theatre of the Absurd but at least there's no possibility we'll ever have an Architecture of the Absurd." He was, he now knows, quite wrong, and in his book, which he wrote well before news of the suit against Gehry, he takes aim specifically at the Stata Center, which has caused no end of grief for MIT. By the way, Gehry's one Manhattan building, the IAC Building, is falling down. Of course, we're told it's the contractor's fault!

Posted by: Francis Morrone on November 12, 2007 8:11 PM

But aren't concepts like quality construction, leakiness, drafts, mold, etc just social constructions by the white male patriarchy? Proper post-modern architects shouldn't be bound by such petty concerns...

Posted by: Foobarista on November 12, 2007 8:48 PM

Don't forget Steven Holl's Bellevue Art Museum had to have its interior rebuilt a few years after opening despite its rave reviews.

The Gutter: Steven's Bellevue Hell Holl Reopens

New York Times: ART/ARCHITECTURE; If the Museum Itself Is an Artwork, What About the Art Inside?

Posted by: Jon on November 12, 2007 9:28 PM

This building is just a few blocks away from where I spend my days discovering wonder drugs. I've been told that the builders had an awful time with it during construction, as well they might. I don't mind the thing, overall, but I see it from a distance. I don't have to work in it (or pay for it). And if someone proposed putting up a lot more of the same style, I think I'd start to mind very quickly. One's enough, and possibly more than enough. . .

Posted by: Derek Lowe on November 12, 2007 9:48 PM

Dear friends;

Events are beginning to break the code of self-congratulatory propaganda that kept Starchitects going for decades. Let's hope this spark will not be extinguished as it has so many times before, when sane individuals felt that the time had finally come for the world to wake up. It never happened, because human nature is infinitely gullible.

I have been busy worrying about another Starchitect monstrosity, the New Acropolis Museum of Bernard Tschumi. It is finally finished in Athens, and it's devouring its environment. See this incredible story on the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism:


Maybe the 2Blowards will help the situation by focusing on the Acropolis problem? Michael, are you a genuine philhellene as I suspect you are? I'm writing a new essay on the Acropolis Museum, for which I'm looking for a good place to publish.

Incidentally, a friend in the UK has promised to review John Silber's book "Architecture of the Absurd" together with my own "Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction", which at least have a similar target. Maybe with two such books around we are not as marginalized as we have been all these years.

Best wishes.

Posted by: Nikos Salingaros on November 12, 2007 9:52 PM

"What on earth is this crowd trying to put over on the rest of us?"

"We are superior to you bourgeois lowbrows." That's it, in its entirety. Tom Wolfe nailed it 35 years ago.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on November 13, 2007 12:45 AM

I enlisted out of high school in 1959. Three years. I was out in late 1962, before Vietnam got going -- although I was stationed in Okinawa, and spent time in the boonies of many countries in the far east.

I remember, shortly after graduation from high school, so many of my friends and (mostly) their parents, telling me I was crazy to go in the military. I could have gotten into a college (although, not a great one -- I was no student). Others my age, the wisdom went, would graduate, then have three or four years up on me in the job market and I would never catch up.

Now, I feel lucky. I have great health care at the VA. But I do feel bad that those who today particularly need and deserve the best health care -- Iraq vets -- are often left with second or third best. It's the accident of location. So many were in guard units in relatively unpopulated areas of the country where even a VA clinic is a long ride.

Posted by: Fred Wickham on November 13, 2007 3:50 AM

Bourgeois middlebrow, if you please, Mr Rostrom.

Posted by: dearieme on November 13, 2007 4:32 AM

Thinking about FvB's comparison of the Gehry to Toontown ... One of the puzzles of the current architectural debates comes to mind. It's hyper-common for the edgy starchitect set to put down the sensible-traditionalism set by accusing them of creating Disneylands -- selling "unreal" evocations of an "unreal" past.

(Incidentally, even if this is true, what's the problem? You'd be amazed by how quickly the "racism" word comes up -- as though zigzaggy or blobby, impractical architecture is "progressive" and sensible traditionalism is an endorsement of slavery. Oddly, the edgy architects have never polled black people and asked them whether they'd prefer to live in something isolated, zigzaggy and leaky or in a nice house with a porch and neighbors ...)

Yet, yet ... It always seemed to me that the crowd that was making theme-park architecture was the edgy-starchitect crowd, not the sensible-trad crowd. Zigzaggy, blobitecture -- it's stunt engineering, cartoonishly exaggerated, show-off, bizarro stuff, akin to rides and attractions at a theme park. Meanwhile, once the trees and bushes grow in, a NewUrb neighborhood (or a New Classical dorm, or a Chris-Alexander-style campus) will feel as solid, homey and real as anything being built today ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 13, 2007 10:43 AM

It's interesting that it never occurred to Gehry that snow would collect and sluice down the sides of that building that he built in New England. What a smart, smart man...

Posted by: Matt on November 14, 2007 12:22 PM

This in only part of the story. In Spain, superstar architect Santiago Calatrava is simultaneously being sued/suing the townships of Bilbao and Valencia on charges of >negligence and alleged moral damages.

Posted by: Rafael PĂ©rez on November 15, 2007 7:37 AM

I agree wholeheartedly with the substance of this post and ensuing comments.

But I sure do wish to dissociate myself from what I also hear: pride in being stodgy self-satisfied old farts.

Isn't there some way to criticize the inanity of starchitecture without coming across as smug? And proud of it?

Posted by: Seattle Man on November 15, 2007 10:02 PM

Dear friends;

The Italians are now going after Gehry with a vengeance:

Il Covile No. 414

They are using quotes from the Italian edition of my book, which includes a well-known international celebrity named Michael Blowhard as co-author.

Let's see what this leads to.
Best wishes.

Posted by: Nikos Salingaros on November 20, 2007 6:16 PM

Mr. Perez, looks like you've made your mind regarding supposed faults of Calatrava based on one Spanish paper (I read your post). As far as I know until a court has ruled, both parties are not considered guilty. That's why construction Law adopted system of arbitrage - and guess what, sometimes architects are not guilty!
Guardian, btw, sites this quote by Calatrava associate:
"Fernando Benzo said the city rejected Calatrava's original design for a water sheath that would have protected the building, set into a dried riverbed, from inevitable run-off. The city, he added, also failed to heed the architect's repeated warnings against building a high sloping garden around the structure, which could channel water directly to the lower storeys of the building.".

Looks entirely plausible to me, having dealt in my professional practice with government officials on various levels.

Posted by: Tatyana on November 20, 2007 9:22 PM

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