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Six Architectural Bloopers [UPDATED]

Even buildings get sick–and when they get sick, you’d better watch your head.

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National Gallery of Art

Since 2005, hundreds of the 438-pound marble slabs that cover I.M.Pei’s National Gallery of Art in D.C. have been slipping loose–notfalling, but threatening to. Phew! Remember when those 11-foot-tallwindow panes popped out of his Hancock Tower in Boston? Guess he didn’tlearn much–after four years of head-scratching, The Wall Street Journal says the marble mystery has been solved … and it’s basically the same deal.

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The story is, Pei used 3-inch-thick panels (too thin) connected by1/8-inch-thick gaskets (too narrow), so when the panels warped in theheat (as thin as that, they warped a lot), the stiff gaskets couldn’ttake it. Shit. (In Boston, a too-stiff bond between the windows’ twolayers of glass couldn’t handle heat and wind pressure and popped the outer layer off.)

We’ve heard these stories before–yeah, yeah, Gehry’s school leaks, Eisenman’s memorial cracks–and we flip out every time. Truth is, buildings can be mysterious things. They make for drama and (near) disaster.They’re downright … human. Seriously: engineers say the National Gallerycaught a “degenerative syndrome” called hysteresis that causes marbleto expand more than it should. (Is that contagious?)

For all the money good architecture commands (the National Gallerycost half a billion to make–and will cost 85 million to fix), we wantit to last forever, a monument to wealth,power, and genius. But they don’t. Nothing we make really does, it’sjust buildings are vessels for so much emotion (and ego) that we expectthem to. Deep down, they’re unpredictable. And that makes theminteresting.

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Here are our top 5 favorite architectural bloopers:

Lever House

5. Lever House, New York, 1990s: The steel curtain-wall frame of this SOM building had to be replaced with aluminum when it rusted and shattered the windows.*

Aon Center

4. Aon Center, Chicago, 1990s: Designed by Edward Durrell Stone and Perkins and Will, all 44,000 marble panels that covered the building had to be replaced with granite when they started warping and cracking.

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Stata Center

3. Stata Center, MIT, 2007: MIT sued Frank Gehry and theconstruction company involved when the building sprouted leaks. Theconstruction company blamed Gehry for ignoring their warnings. Gehryblamed MIT for cutting costs.

Citigroup Center

2. Citigroup Center, New York, 1978: Big-shot engineerWilliam LeMessurier (pronounced “le measure”-seriously) discovers astructural flaw that would topple the tower if it was hit with strongenough winds, and races to fix it before a hurricane arrives.

John Hancock Tower

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1. John Hancock Tower, Boston, 1990s: Besidesthose infamous falling panes, the building had to be retrofitted with apair of 300-ton weights so that top-floor execs didn’t puke every time it swayed in the wind.

*SOM writes to take exception with this characterization. They make the fair point that the building’s aluminum was replaced some 40 years after it was first completed. Thus, SOM wasn’t ever to blame for the eventual failings and it’s unfair to compare it to examples such as the Stata center. But still, would you sign-up for big piece of statement architecture if the architects said upfront that a major portion of the facade would eventually need to be replaced? The point being: Even modern classics that seem unassailable aren’t immune to unpredictable crack-ups.

[Via The Wall Street Journal]