MIT Sues Frank Gehry Over Design of Celebrity Architect's 'Party of Drunken Robots' Building

Everyone was smiling three years ago when M.I.T.'s new $300 million Stata Center was described by its own renowned architect as resembling a "party of drunken robots."

But no one's smiling now. It's leaking, cracking and sprouting mold, and somebody's going to have to pay.

Famed nonconformist architect Frank Gehry and the construction firm that will handle the billion-dollar renovation of the United Nations have been slapped with a lawsuit by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which claims the designer and builders failed to live up to their contracts and are responsible for the Stata amphitheater's structural problems.

The Ray and Maria Stata Center, in Cambridge, Mass., was hailed as an architectural masterpiece when it was unveiled three years ago. Gehry said then of his futuristic building that it looked like a bunch of tipsy robots that "got together to celebrate."

But now, judging by its legal claims, M.I.T. has sobered up.

The university's suit, filed last week in Suffolk Superior Court in Boston, alleges negligence on the part of Gehry Partners and the construction company, Skanska USA Building Inc.

M.I.T. claims they are responsible for the structural problems at its center for computer, information and intelligence sciences.

Among those problems, according to the lawsuit: multiple leaks, cracks in the exterior, a clogged drainage system, a build-up of mold, and ice and snow sliding off the window boxes.

M.I.T. says it paid Gehry, known for his offbeat and frequently controversial styles, $15 million to design the Stata, which is characterized by a cartoonish, eye-popping mish-mash of off-kilter angles and curves.

M.I.T. had to pay more than $1.5 million to a separate company it enlisted to rebuild the theater, according to the Oct. 31 lawsuit, which is seeking unspecified damages.

A spokeswoman from the elite engineering and technology university declined to comment because the litigation is pending.

"The lawsuit speaks for itself," she said.

The Los Angeles-based Gehry Partners did not return calls seeking comment. Nor did Skanska USA, which was recently awarded the $1.876 billion contract to refurbish the U.N. building in New York City.

Gehry, 78, has spoken only to The New York Times about the legal battle. He said he believes the issues at hand are relatively minor and that "M.I.T. is after our insurance."

"These things are complicated, and they involve a lot of people, and you never quite know where they went wrong," he told the newspaper. "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."

Skanska has blamed Gehry for what the firm characterizes as his failure to heed its warnings that there were faults with his design.

"This is not a construction issue, never has been," the company's executive vice president told The Boston Globe. "It was difficult to make the original design work."

Those in the industry say such disputes are hardly unusual after a building goes up.

"Lawsuits against architects are common — or at least, the threat is commonplace," said Donald Dunham, a professor of architecture at Philadelphia University. "Then there's some settlement that takes place that we don't know about."

Dunham said that though he wasn't familiar with Gehry's history with these kinds of complaints, he thinks it's unfathomable that the architect wouldn't have tried to ensure that the Stata was structurally sound.

"I can't believe that Gehry or any other architect wouldn't have done everything in their power to remedy the situation," he said. "Quite often, the design could be improved, but the actual materials and the methods of construction lead to some kind of failure."

Even the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright was dogged by finger-pointing after his designs were realized, according to architect Mary Frazier of EwingCole, a firm that specializes in sports, entertainment, health care, arts and education projects, and is designing the New Meadowlands stadium for the Jets and Giants football teams.

"You always hear the stories of Frank Lloyd Wright, that every building he built leaked," Frazier said. "But is it true, or not?"

Sometimes, the more off-the-beaten path a design is, the more likely it is that it will be plagued by glitches. But that's to be expected, Dunham said.

"When someone chooses an unconventional architect like Frank Gehry, they’re a partner. They have to accept some of the responsibility when things don’t work out perfectly," he said. "Even in the most boring, conventional buildings, things happen."

One month after the Stata was finished, Gehry described it as a "collage" of elements from different buildings in historic Cambridge.

The Canadian-born architect is perhaps most famous for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Bilbao, Spain. He also designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Gehry House in Santa Monica.

He's been slated to be the architect for the theater center at the former site of the World Trade Center in Manhattan and a new sports arena in Brooklyn, N.Y., that will be home to the New Jersey Nets basketball team.

This isn't the first time Gehry has had post-construction tangles over his projects. In 2004, after a report found that the Walt Disney Concert Hall's outer layer was creating major glare, he agreed to have portions of the building sandblasted to fix the problem.

He was sued for fraud in the spring by a company that claimed he owed money in a deal in which he designed a jewelry collection for Tiffany.

Ironically, Gehry told a forum at M.I.T. when the Stata Center was unveiled: "What I treasure most about designing is the relationship with the client. I'm gonna miss that. I'll have post-partum blues."