Lost in the Funhouse

The battle between starchitect Frank Gehry and MIT reveals the widening chasm between design and down-to-earth craft.

The Ray and Maria Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is an outlandish cartoon village in listing brick and scrolling aluminum, with a Möbius-strip main corridor inside. An italic-angled entrance, shaped like the cutting edge itself, ushers visitors off the drab Cambridge street. But then you see it, tha t universal symbol of malfunction: an orange mechanical lift.


Yes, MIT, the very apogee of tech sophistication, seems to have bought itself a bright-yellow lemon. The showstopper home for its computer-science, linguistics, and philosophy departments cost $300 million to build ($200 million more than initial estimates) and opened in 2004 (four years behind schedule). And now the school has turned to the courts to express its buyer’s remorse. A lawsuit filed in October against both the construction firm and the architect alleges “design and construction failures,” negligence, and breach of contract, which have cost the university $1.5 million in repairs already, with millions more likely to come.

The suit grabbed headlines because the architect’s name is Frank Gehry, fueling a backlash against celebrity architects and their flashy designs. The go-to guy for this take is John Silber, the former president of Boston University, who has just published a book called Architecture of the Absurd: How “Genius” Disfigured a Practical Art. The Stata Center is on the cover.

This kerfuffle may have little to do with outward appearances, though. True, some of Gehry’s other buildings have been tweaked after opening their doors, as when the steel-sided Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles had to be sanded to remove a glare that could practically cook eggs on the sidewalk. And occupants have questioned elements of the Stata Center’s design. (“I still would prefer straight to slanted walls, so as to put up bookshelves and a blackboard,” says linguist Noam Chomsky, who has an office there.)

But what about the “construction” piece of the lawsuit? What if the Stata Center’s woes are really about the growing gulf between computer-aided design and literal bricks and mortar? To find out, I decided to visit MIT with the Sherlock Holmes of construction.

“This was incredibly dumb.” I am standing at a Stata Center side entrance with Joseph Lstiburek as he points out a brick wall that meets a glass wall with a superficial connection, allowing moisture to seep across the porous brick from outside to inside. Lstiburek (pronounced STEE-bu-rek), an engineer with a PhD, is a frequent expert witness in construction lawsuits and an international authority on leaks who gets paid tens of thousands of dollars to cut holes in the sides of buildings and inform the owners how theirs were built wrong. As an independent, unpaid, informal observer, he has had his eye on the Stata Center for several years: “It was obvious it wasn’t going to work from watching it go up.”

Lstiburek speculates that the Stata Center’s leaks are caused by “fishmouthing” of the waterproof membranes, discontinuities between the roof and walls, and poor design of the window-to-wall connections. But he claims something else is wrong–something even more basic. During a 45-minute, PowerPoint-aided lecture, he shows me MIT’s own photos of the center being built. “You see the yellow stuff, gypsum board. And you’ll see the membrane going over this and then the brick. The insulation that is put on the inside should have been put on the outside. They just have them in the wrong order.” In the winter, when a building like this is heated, explains Lstiburek, who wrote the U.S. Department of Energy’s handbook on moisture control, water vapor “sweats” through the wall into the insulation and is trapped there by the waterproof membrane, just like your T-shirt gets sopping under a pleather jacket. This erodes the wall, causes mold, and even makes the insulation smell like dirty socks.


On our tour of the building, he sees inconsistencies–one transition from glass skylight to brick wall is handled beautifully, but another is sloppy. Mold is growing on the front of the building as rain spills down its face, with no windowsill or lip to stop it. Outside by the amphitheater, he highlights white spots on the brick. Though the amphitheater has already been rebuilt once (a drainage mat was installed underneath, which cost $1.5 million, according to the lawsuit), the white spots, known as “efflorescence,” indicate that water is still seeping from underneath the masonry and evaporating, leaving minerals behind.

So who is to blame? Lstiburek posits that the architects should have done a better job of specifying materials and techniques. And the construction firm should have been more rigorous in its quality control. On both fronts, though, these are fundamental errors of craft, not design. In other words, Gehry’s billowing sheets of metal and unexpected angles aren’t at fault: It’s how they were specced out and implemented. Two of Gehry’s more prominent creations– the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and Seattle’s Experience Music Project–haven’t had any construction problems.

If the analysis is right, repairing the Stata Center will cost tens of millions of dollars.

“It’s hard for people to believe that something so simple is screwing up these buildings,” Lstiburek says. “But this is an industrywide problem. It’s not because you have a famous architect.” He adds that basic errors like these occur in up to 20% of all new buildings going up, concrete boxes as well as soaring landmarks. (In another high-profile example, Daniel Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum has suffered leaks similar to the Stata Center.) “The more complicated the building,” Lstiburek says, “the more critical workmanship becomes.” The Stata Center’s construction firm, Skanska U.S.A., is the American outpost of a $17 billion Swedish giant. They responded through a spokesperson: “Skanska values its relationship with MIT and is looking forward to a speedy resolution of the matter.” But Paul Hewins, executive VP and area general manager of the company, told The Boston Globe: “This is not a construction issue. Never has been.”

Gehry’s official statement, of course, implies the opposite: “I fully stand behind the center’s design and have no reason to believe that it contributed in any way to the problems, which are relatively minor and easily addressed.” If Lstiburek is right, repairing the Stata Center will require removing the outside cladding and reapplying layers in the right order, not to mention resealing the wall-to-window connections. The cost will run in the tens of millions of dollars.

That huge potential price tag is the strongest hypothetical explanation of why MIT chose to go to court. (MIT’s press office would only say that the lawsuit speaks for itself.) Gehry told The New York Times that MIT was “after our insurance,” and William Mitchell, the former dean of MIT’s school of architecture, speaking for himself, not MIT, echoes that assessment, calling the lawsuit, “a haggle over insurance, really.” In the end, though, because Gehry was the architect, his reputation will suffer just as much as MIT’s, whether his insurance company has to pay for the repairs or not. To protect their status and multimillion-dollar fees, perhaps star architects are going to have to pay more attention to how their fantastic, otherworldly designs are brought down to earth.


About the author

Anya Kamenetz is the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her 2011 ebook The Edupunks’ Guide was funded by the Gates Foundation