Flaws on Display at High-Profile Buildings Problems have emerged with recent marvels of modern architecture, from mold at Frank Gehry's Stata Center at M.I.T. to shattering glass windows at the New York Times building. What's behind the problems?
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Flaws on Display at High-Profile Buildings

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Flaws on Display at High-Profile Buildings

Flaws on Display at High-Profile Buildings

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, rockin' and rollin' with The Wigs.

But first…

(Soundbite of drilling)

SIMON: Behold the sound of a crumbling facade. It's no mere metaphor. The sound of construction workers repairing the facade of NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., after a couple of chunks of the building fell off last year. No one was hurt.

(Soundbite of drilling)

SIMON: Look, I know traditional media platforms are getting weaker - but so literally? The New York Times building in midtown Manhattan is having problems, too. Twice this winter, glass panes on that building have been broken by high winds, shattering on the streets below, and ceramic rods that are part of an energy screen on the building have formed dangerous icicles, forcing the city to close off the sidewalk below.

All over America, some of the newest architectural marvels are revealing problems. Frank Gehry is being sued by Massachusetts Institute of Technology because they say his design for the Stata Center in Cambridge is faulty and already growing pockets of mold.

Are innovations in architecture outpacing our ability to build and maintain these new creations? Are the ahs worth all the watch-out-below?

Robert Ivy is editor in chief of Architecture Record magazine. He joins us from our studios in New York.

Thank you so much for being with us.

Mr. ROBERT IVY (Editor in Chief, Architecture Record): Good to be here.

SIMON: Is stuff being designed and put up that can't be maintained?

Mr. IVY: We're building so many kinds of buildings right now. We've had a tremendous boom and construction and tremendous innovation and design. We have complex buildings that we've never seen before. And in some of them, we are witnessing problems. But it's a small percentage, I think, as a percentage of the whole volume of construction that's being done.

Falling ice that you mentioned is an obvious problem, and it's a safety…

SIMON: This on the New York Times building.

Mr. IVY: That's correct.

SIMON: Yeah. Now, one would think - because as I understand it, the ceramic rods kind of hold the energy screen in place, right?

Mr. IVY: The ceramic rods are part of the energy screen at The New York Times tower. They are actually an innovative system that surrounds the building like a screen and keeps the sun out. Now, the other side of that is that there are 170,000 of these ceramic rods, like a cage, around the building. And on December 14th, a number of them filled with ice and slush. And apparently, as they warmed during the course of the day, they let go of that ice.

And as you questioned in your intro - well, are we making buildings that are too complex to keep, in a question like this, people are going to be pointing fingers for a while. We know that the falling ice is definitely a problem. But the owner maintains, in this case, that it was extensively tested.

I know that they studied and tested them for snow load, for ice, for heat, for a variety of weather conditions. However, we're human beings, and I do not know whether the variable was introduced of - let's say, of a rod that warms slightly and then is subjected to a high wind.

There's another set of variables, though, that goes beyond the question of testing, and that's these big complex buildings have been built and they're built by people.

SIMON: I mean, to be plain about it, you're talking about the human factor entering into workmanship.

Mr. IVY: Absolutely. A complex building may literally have hundreds of thousands of individual parts and pieces. And we rely on the process - the construction process today to put these things together. And our construction processes are, again, remarkably sophisticated but have not been reinvented in the same way that our design abilities have.

So in some cases, we are relying on the skill of an individual or the way they feel that morning as they're completing a single detail on the facade of a building. There's this balance between design and construction that we have to constantly monitor.

SIMON: Are some of these absolutely remarkable buildings we're talking about, are they being built with a life expectancy in mind?

Mr. IVY: Depends on the kind of building that you're talking about. We have buildings that are built by developers and strip malls that might have a 10-year lifespan.

On the other hand, a building in a university, which is going to own the facility throughout its lifetime and try to attract and retain faculty and students, for instance, might have 100-year lifespan or even greater.

Therefore, the investment that goes into the building depends on what the owners' needs and desires and budget are.

SIMON: So if you're putting up a Frank Gehry design, one assumes that whoever is putting that up is even thinking it might be there 200 years. That's worth any investment, they might think.

Mr. IVY: Well, in the case - let's think about signature buildings that Gehry has done himself. His iconic building, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, that building has been worth the effort for the city of Bilbao and for northern Spain. It's, in essence, changed our own perception of what that place is all about. And that is an iconic building that serves a specific purpose.

SIMON: Robert Ivy, editor in chief of Architecture Record magazine, thanks so much.

Mr. IVY: You're welcome.

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