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Re-educating starchitects

Like most of Frank Gehry’s buildings, the Stata Center at MIT split critics in half, but most praised its jutting, angled facade and boxy, unconventional design. Love it or hate it, the building commonly known as the “two dancing robots” began to leak, crack and grow mold just three years after its 2004 unveiling. It’s another example of overambitious architects designing gravity-defying buildings that push the laws of physics and reveal their structural weaknesses in a matter of years.

In the case of the $300 million Stata Center, Gehry forgot to account for the ample amount of ice and snow that can accumulate during a Boston winter. The buildup on the awkwardly angled ledges caused mini avalanches on unsuspecting passersby as well as structural damage such as cracked masonry, which led to leaks, mold, one big lawsuit and a $1.5 million repair bill.

But Gehry is not the only one to drop the ball. Fellow Pritzker Prize–winner Renzo Piano narrowly escaped a lawsuit when the ventilation system failed in his $300 million Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, and the signature roof design began to whine and whistle in the wind. But is failing to consider a climatic condition such as wind in the windy city itself unforgivable or unforeseeable?

It’s often difficult to determine who’s really to blame: the architect or the engineer, or both? After all, shouldn’t the two work hand in hand? The best bet is to avoid these problems altogether. That’s about to get a little easier now that the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics (IBP) in Stuttgart, Germany, has established Climate Culture Building (CCB), an international graduate school that promotes climate-conscious construction and prepares engineers to work with architects to implement sustainable building practices. “Modern architecture frequently disregards basic climate-conscious principles and is then forced to counterbalance the structural and physical consequences with highly technical and not particularly energy-efficient constructions,” Dr. Klaus Sedlbauer of the Fraunhofer IBP explains.

Since many buildings’ structural problems are often attributed to weather conditions, it’s high time someone developed a compendium of climatic concerns that engineers and architects worldwide can reference. CCB not only encourages study in as many climate zones as possible but also takes into consideration the effective use of local resources and building materials. To accomplish this, CCB isn’t held in a fixed location but is conducted between the University of Stuttgart and the student at a university in his or her country of choice.

Though a systematic change is clearly in order, the outlook isn’t completely bleak; many architects and engineers have already gotten it right. The Federal Building in San Francisco, for example, is one of the greenest buildings in America, using only 45% of the energy of the average U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) building. On the other end of the spectrum, the Raising Malawi Academy for Girls in Lilongwe, which is funded by pop star Madonna’s organization, Raising Malawi, is making headlines with its use of local resources such as Hydraform bricks made from soil onsite and its creative solutions to combating the hot climate without air conditioning. 

Although it’s doubtful that someone like Frank Gehry would amend his projects to even the most learned engineer, all is not lost: For the 99% of the world’s structures that aren’t built by starchitects, there’s CCB, and there’s hope for a less wasteful, more constructive future in building.


Perrin Drumm is a California-born, Brooklyn-based writer with strong feelings about design, architecture, art and film. She’s currently working on her MFA in fiction. You can see her work at http://flavors.me/perrindrumm.

Photo: The Ray and Maria Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

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