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Gehry, Skanska Point Fingers Over MIT Lawsuit

November 14, 2007

By Sam Lubell

The finger-pointing has already begun in response to a lawsuit filed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) against Frank Gehry’s firm, Gehry Partners, and general contractor Skanska USA. The suit alleges that flaws exist in the design and construction of the $300 million Stata Center for Computer, Information and Intelligence Sciences.

Stata Center
Photo: © Roland Halbe

MIT’s suit alleges that the Stata Center has developed “persistent leaks,” and that ice and snow slide from the roof during winter, creating a hazard.

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The tilting, warped 720,000-square-foot titanium and brick building houses labs, offices, classrooms, and meeting rooms for MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems, and the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. It was completed in 2004 at a cost of $300 million.

The suit, filed on October 31 at Suffolk Superior Court, in Boston, claims that “Gehry and Skanska committed design and construction failures on the project which caused, among other things, masonry cracking, efflorescence, and poor drainage at (Stata Center’s) outdoor amphitheater; efflorescence and mold growth at various locations on the brick exterior vertical elevations; persistent leaks at various locations throughout the building; and sliding ice and snow from the building.” It alleges that “MIT has suffered considerable damage, in the form of investigatory, redesign, and remedial work, as a result of the Defendants’ failures.”

Although the suit does not specify an amount the university is seeking in damages, it says that MIT paid Gehry Partners $15 million to design the center and it claims that Gehry Partners “failed to provide design services and drawings in accordance with the applicable standard of care.”

When contacted by record, both MIT and Gehry Partners declined to comment. But in a November 7 article, Gehry told The New York Times: “These things are complicated, and they involved a lot of people, and you never quite know where they went wrong. A building goes together with seven billion pieces of connective tissue. The chances of it getting done ever without something colliding or some misstep are small. I think the issues are fairly minor.”

Skanska spokesperson Caroline Bucquet also declined to comment on the suit’s specifics for record, but said “we’re very dedicated to coming to a resolution to this situation.”

The Stata Center lawsuit is attracting considerable attention even outside the architecture and construction community, mainly because of Gehry's name recognition, but it¹s hardly unique. For instance, insurer Victor O. Schinnerer/CNA reports an annual average of 15 to 20 claims per 100 policy holders among its architect clients. John Connelly, a partner at the Peabody & Arnold law firm in Boston and a co-chair of the Boston Bar Association's Construction Law Committee, observes that the majority of such cases end in settlements and that many devolve into finger pointing.

The tit-for-tat has already begun. Gehry, for instance, told The New York Times that “MIT is after our insurance.”

In a Boston Globe article on November 6, meanwhile, an anonymous executive at Skanska’s Boston office blamed Gehry for problems with the project, contending that the architect ignored warnings both from Skanska and a consulting company about the design of his amphitheater prior to its construction.

The MIT lawsuit is not Gehry’ first. In July 2006 it settled a suit concerning cost overruns at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, in Los Angeles. And in December 2004, the firm had agreed to sandblast parts of the Concert Hall in response to a report that found that the building’s metallic surface was producing too much glare.

Gehry designed the Stata Center to unify scattered academic departments and to encourage interaction among scientists and students. It has won many accolades and awards, including a 2005 Grand Award from the American Council of Engineering Companies. But some professors and students are less than pleased with it. The Tech, an MIT school newspaper, reported in May 2004 that students complained the building is too loud, complicated, distracting, and fails to provide occupants with enough privacy.

“It’s no doubt always debatable about the merits of such lawsuits,” observes Richard Fitzgerald, executive director of the Boston Society of Architects. “Ideally in the emerging age of integrated practice there will be no more lawsuits.”

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