Revenge of the drunken robots.

The ‘Tute is suing Frank Gehry for design and construction flaws in Building 32. I can’t say I’m surprised, and I can’t say that I have much sympathy for the defendant: it’s a cool building, sure, but, like so many high-profile architectural projects, it is ridden with problems that render its price tag completely preposterous. Of course, MIT should have known from his track record that Gehry generally cares more about concept than about little problems like drainage, leaking, ice formation, specularity and albedo, and the cumulative effects of what we folks outside of Los Angeles like to call “weather” and “the seasons.” Conceptually and spatially, Building 32 largely works (though it has hardly been without problems — major and minor — as well as complaints from its residents). In the bricks-and-mortar sense, though, there have been clear and obvious issues right from the beginning. When it was being built, I would wonder every day that I walked past just what the construction workers thought about what they were making. I always figured there was a lot of eye-rolling and head-scratching, and I have to say that they had a great deal of empathy from me. When it was completed, I was pleasantly surprised: it didn’t totally suck, as I thought it was going to, though it did have a fair number of detrimental effects on the east side of campus due to the Institute’s slavish promotion of the building to the neglect of other facilities that were more important to, say, students who actually lived over there. But we’ll just set that aside for now.
The thing that makes me laugh this rather dark laugh is knowledge of what “The Stata Center” replaced: a complex of shoddily constructed, hastily put together (it was war, after all), downright ugly interconnected four-story shacks called Building 20, which doubtless cost a very meager fraction of what stands there now. A stranger passing by these structures would hardly have guessed that video games, radar, and a host of other important technologies were conceived and created there, amidst an environment of unfettered creativity that had little to do with how the building looked (it looked atrocious) but almost everything to do with its residents’ ability to freely modify their environment as they saw fit, precisely because nobody at the top cared about what they did to that crappy complex of buildings: it was always just about to be torn down anyway. When they did finally slate 20 for demolition, there was a huge outpouring of protest from current and former residents, who came back to reminisce about the time they spent at what had come to be known as the Magical Incubator.
Gehry’s architectural task was to design something that would emulate — and, ideally, recreate — the no-holds-barred creative environment that had germinated and thrived in Building 20, combined with the sense of activity and connectivity embodied by the Infinite Corridor of the Main Group — and to make it all look nice. But, frankly, there are just some things you can’t design into a building, especially when aesthetic considerations start to take precedence over the ability of individuals to do their work. For instance, when one of my friends and the lab he worked for moved their operations from a tiny office underneath 35-225 (literally underneath — you could see the tiers of the lecture hall in the tapering ceiling) where they built autonomous helicopters into Building 32, they received a memo telling them that CRT monitors were not allowed into the building because of the architect’s specifications. Now, seriously: who on earth would be so idiotic as to ask a bunch of MIT engineers to get rid of their old equipment? Had Gehry ever ventured into any MIT basement corridor? Had he actually been inside a lab?
Don’t get me wrong: I care a great deal for good architecture, and there are spaces in Building 32 that really do make the spirit soar, and that made me very excited to be at a place that could afford to construct such a building. But there are problems that arise when the focus is directed more towards the name on the cornerstone than it is on the people who will be living and working in the building — just look at The Sponge. I think there’s some middle ground, and I hope that MIT is able to find it. Perhaps they did with Building 46 — it did look pretty cool — but I haven’t been there and I just don’t know what the response has been.
And of course Rod Brooks is the one defending Stata and Gehry. He makes those drunken robots.


5 thoughts on “Revenge of the drunken robots.

  1. I don’t really like anything Frank Gehry has designed in the last 18 years, but I’ve tried to be open-minded about Building 32. It’s whimsical and unusual. I kind of like the “student street” concept, but I take serious issue with how well the stairwells and exits are hidden. I wouldn’t want to have to find my way out from one of the upper levels in a fire.
    But the day-to-day problems this building has had are just stupid. I remember discussing the problems with rainfall and ice slides from the sloped entryways even before they were built, but it seems that neither the architect nor MIT gave them any consideration. Skanska claims they raised the issue about drainage in the amphitheatre, but got vetoed. Pushovers.
    The Gehry building at Case Western, which looks exactly like MIT’s building and was completed two years earlier, has all the same problems. The Institute should have seen it coming. (Maybe they don’t read the newspaper?)
    In his blatant ignorance of practical concerns, Frank Gehry has some historical counterparts. The most unfortunate is Frank Lloyd Wright (whose designs I actually like). Architecture magazine, November 1989:
    “Leaks are a given in any Wright house. Indeed, the architect has been notorious not only for his leaks but his flippant dismissals of clients’ complaint. He reportedly asserted that, ‘If the roof doesn’t leak, the architect hasn’t been creative enough.’”
    The owner of Wright’s Fallingwater house referred to it among friends as “Rising Mildew.” So perhaps this is just the price you pay for “starchitecture.”

  2. “albedo” is one thing, and an interesting thing too; but when it comes to [FLWright or] Gehry perhaps, like star-power politicians, it is more a case of libido: stroke his, get leaks.

  3. Well…ego is something they both suffered from, acknowledged.
    Yet, I was having fun playing on “albedo” vs. “libido,” so “playing with voice recognition software again” — my brain circuits — may well have something to do with my observation, which I stand by, AND here’s why” it occurred to me that those two geniuses and their personal behaviors seem, to me, to be not unlike the self-interested and libidinous behavior of certain of our legislators at every level.
    Now, this may not seem like such a big deal to the modern generation [youse guys], who may take it for granted that bad behavior goes goes hand in hand with being an elected official [I do NOT believe that]; yet it is often the cutting edge fulcrum between choosing to do the so-called “right thing,” and getting (as they used to say) “one’s rocks off” at any cost, including disadvantage to the paying public.
    Seems that, given my scenario, architecture anbd politics have a lot in common: you can buld your house on solid rock or you can choose to build on flaccid sand and other cutenesses. Stroke it, it leaks — suddenly.

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