Open letter from John Maeda re: MIT vs. Gehry

I'm reposting this here to open it up for discussion within the Archinect community. Maeda makes a good point regarding the leaking problems of Gehry's Stata Center. If you're unfamiliar with this issue, you can read more about it here.


Leaks Are To Be Forgiven
Architects are not plumbers.

While MIT is busily suing Frank Gehry for issues regarding the nearby Stata Center, it gave me an opportunity to examine our own building here at the Media Lab. Indeed it's now an old building (20+ years), but in its time it was a true representation of Modern as a perfect white cube.

I was an undergrad when the Media Lab's building had just come up and was then nicknamed "the bathroom building" due to the large square white tiles that cover the exterior (and interior) of the building. Today, everytime I walk into the building, deep down inside I have a desire to hose down the entire exterior as the white tiles are now somewhat dingy like a questionable shower stall. And although the lawsuit wrt the Stata Center lists one of the issues as leaking due to inherent design flaws ... I have to say that my own office leaks every time it rains. Let's not forget that I'm in a perfectly cubic building and not within the swoopy and crumpled confines of Stata. You do the math.

So, as my alma mater and employer MIT engages in suing an architectural legend and icon, I can't help but feel it's sort of like suing Picasso for a bad painting or else like suing Paul Rand for a bad logo design. It's sort of embarrassing from my perspective as a creative really. Sure I get the whole business perspective and all ... but there isn't a single day when I see people photographing the Stata Center due to its incredibly interesting and innovative forms/moments. Innovation is by nature a risky business -- it's something I learned from MIT.

I recall the famous story of how Frank Lloyd Wright was telephoned by an angry client regarding his complaint that the home Wright had designed would leak when it rains. Wright replied to the effect, "Well then just step out of the way of the leak and you won't get wet."

Regarding the leak in my own office, I've learned how to move the electrical items away from the downpour and have managed to do just fine. IM Pei doesn't have to call his lawyer, yet (smile).

Posted by maeda at November 11, 2007 04:57 PM

Thoughts On Simplicity By John Maeda


What do you think?

Nov 14, 07 7:23 pm

...thank you John, very well stated.

Architects, let's remember, are not responsible for means and methods. The contractor no doubt sold their collective souls to get this job, and any other job that promised this kind of cache.

If they can't build it, don't bid it.

Nov 14, 07 7:31 pm
Chase Dammtor

although maeda is too forgiving about leaky buildings. buildings should not leak, be them cubic or complicated. but it probably is more of a contractor issue than an architecture issue. maybe i just think that though because i'm still in school and i think architecture is all about designing cool crazy stuff and haven't yet learned about flashing details...

Nov 14, 07 8:13 pm
liberty bell

The funny thing to me is: suing Gehry over a leak is situated exactly between suing Picasso for a bad painting (art) and suing Paul Rand for a bad logo (business). This is architecture: we straddle both disciplines. And this is why we can rarely please everyone.

Some very nice thoughts in that letter re: striving higher and taking risks. Thanks for sharing it, Paul.

Nov 14, 07 8:16 pm

well said lb. I like exactness.

Nov 14, 07 9:46 pm

there is enough technology and wisdom available to create a roof that doesn't leak. period.

Yes, we can blame the contractor (who is ultimately responsible for shoddy workmanship), but the specifications hold the key to a leak proof future. (maybe Gehry's folks wrote a bad spec). Especially in complex situations, like the Strata center, it is worth including 'electronic leak detection testing' or similar into the spec. Flood testing creates twice as many leaks as it detects due to the destructive nature of removing the temporary dams. I've seen demos of the electronic vector testing and it's quite amazing at finding even the smallest pinprick.

MIT needs to examine their project management decisions - they may have chosen to save money and eliminate a cheap alternative to the costly repairs. A penny saved sometimes is pound foolish.

oh john, hope you're not allergic to mold.

thank you paul for sharing!

Nov 14, 07 10:29 pm
vado retro

This is from an MIT announcement about Stata's Opening:

Frank Gehry recently wrote of Stata, "it reflects the different groups, the collision of ideas, the energy of people and ideas. They each have their own sort of vectors and they will all be colliding with each other, some accidentally and some by contrivance. That's what will lead to the breakthroughs and the positive results."

The words - collision, colliding, accidentally, may have tipped them off. This is fucking art people and art is a fucking chance.

Nov 14, 07 11:03 pm

Remember: MIT is suing Gehry Partners (not Gehry personally) and Skanska (the contractor), Skanska issued a press release publicly blaming Gehry Partners, claiming they had a paper trail to back up their claims, and the media (Maeda?) frenzy ensued. This is far from over, folks.

Nov 14, 07 11:17 pm

Sometimes the most dangerous thing an architect can say is, "Build it how its drawn."

I don't get forgiven if one of our projects leaks. True, our office may not be God's gift to architecture, but we still have to be accountable and step up to assist in the resolution, even it is a field workmanship issue. If you don't proactively get in there and try to resolve it early, the lawyers will get in there and then everybody loses, except the lawyers.

This is a problem now because Owner, Architect, and Contractor couldn't partner sufficiently to either make sure that it wouldn't leak, or that if it does leak, that they can effectively deal with it.

Step down off the pedastal, do your best work, and be a team player.

Architecture is an art, a science and a business. All three have to succeed or else none succeed.

Nov 14, 07 11:20 pm

C'mon people. Commodity, firmness and delight; remember? Your skill as a designer is making all three happen simultaneously!

I would be interested to know what the contractural arrangement is before anybody wades into either the architect or the contractor. Who had ultimate responsibility for designing and implementing the details? Something tells me it wasn't Frank-O (hmm that has a familiar ring to it...).

Nov 15, 07 4:10 am
Luis Fraguada

have architects stepped too far from the actual process of building?

Nov 15, 07 5:14 am
rudy kant fail

hey bernini's towers at the vatican were a disaster but no one would(unless they are an idiot) argue against his supreme artistic genius. well except maybe borromini who was just as much of a genius.

Nov 15, 07 7:21 am

maybe some architects, luis, but let's not get TOO general.

off to a job site today, one i visit about once a week to help work out solutions with the contractors...


i'm curious WHERE the leaks are. if it's roofing, that would send one kind of message about responsibility. if it's flashing slopey wall to slopey wall, that's another thing. if it's windows butting into inside corners, that's yet another. are the leaks all under the umbrella of one trade or are they at the places between the work of two trades (i.e., sheet metal and masonry)? these are the things that the litigation will have to determine and, ultimately, may be the things that establish liability.

and, as maeda points out, these problems are things that can happen just as easily to a cube. we focus on this kind of building because it looks like it should leak, not just because it - like so many other much more ordinary buildings - does.

Nov 15, 07 7:29 am

implementation is not the architect's concern, unless i missed something when studying for my ARE's. as for the details and specs, i would assume that a project of this magnitude would have a high level of oversight and involvement with the specific vendors, but killa if i remember correctly you worked at gehry, so i defer to you on your experiences there.

so the the architect has his liability insurance, the contractor fails to build it correctly and the vendor oversells his product, and the client's desire to have another signature building to their stable is satisfied. all of this points to one thing; $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$!

Nov 15, 07 7:34 am
vado retro

you cannot have a productive collision of ideas in a freaking box. jesus.

Nov 15, 07 7:37 am

(Thats my favorite jesus quote)

Nov 15, 07 1:12 pm

I actually talked with Bill Mitchell about this a few years ago, right when Stata opened up. The thing is this: they had a box. The building they tore down to build this one was the ultimate in unplanned modernist flexibility: a uniform grid of space that could be knocked around and reconfigured at will. It was originally meant to be a temporary building, put up around WWII, it was never torn down until Stata.

They didn't want that, they wanted idiosyncratic space with lots of individual, specific qualities, sounds hard to detail, right?

But yeah, the clients literally felt like you could not have a productive collision of ideas in a freaking box. Jesus was correct.

Nov 15, 07 1:21 pm
won and done williams

i'm not sure maeda's response really sheds any new light on this that wasn't already discussed in the other thread, other than he personally thinks that gehry, because of his reputation, is above the prosaics of detailing.

look it shouldn't matter if it's gehry, hok, or bob the architect; a mistake was made either in the drawings or in the field, and either the architect or the contractor is responsible. period. what is the debate?

Nov 15, 07 1:33 pm
"This is fucking art people and art is a fucking chance"

-- vado may be right about that, but only in a relatively few cases.

An unfortunate aspect of this case is that the rest of us - we, the great unwashed "ordinary" architects who don't produce art, but do produce buildings in which our clients aspire only to live, work, learn and recreate - suffer from negative PR whenever this happens. Whether we like it or not, the rest of us are painted by this same brush of irresponsibility (whatever the truth of the matter) especially in those instances when we're trying to sell our clients something unproven or out of the ordinary.

I once had a business colleague who liked to say "the path of innovation is littered with the bleached bones of the dead" Most clients - the sort who live with ordinary budgets and tight schedules -- just want a building that meets their functional requirements, can be built on time and within budget, and that doesn't leak or fall down. This is the characteristic of mainstream architecture -- and for most of us its a craft, not an art.

Nov 15, 07 1:35 pm
liberty bell

Well said, quizzical.

I don't think Maeda's latter is proposing that Gehry be given a free pass. I think he's only saying that innovation is good, taking risks is good, and we need to cheerfully deal with the consequences when things don't quite work out. Better to reach for something new than stick with the tried and true (which can also, as in his cube building, sometimes fail). And what are universities supposed to be doing if not trying to further our culture?

Nov 15, 07 1:55 pm

I think it's interesting that Maeda refers to the Stata Center as be innovative, don't you have to do something new-ish? But does this count as "new" for Gehry, when he's been doing this for several years now? So I would say that maybe anything innovative for him would be something swoopy that doesn't leak....

.....just a thought.

Nov 15, 07 2:20 pm
liberty bell

Hahaha good point DubK!

Nov 15, 07 2:26 pm

Don't they usually come up with some tax break / donation deal? Like, let's say GC and or FOG make a generous donation to some MIT affiliated nonprofit which happens to use the STATA. MIT uses the donation to pay for the "cost overrun" (fix problem) caused by challenging roofing conditions. Everybody wins type of deal. Or is it more profitable to milk the insurances? Even lawyers need to eat, right?
Where are the tax/money savvy architects on this forum that know more about this type of deal, we (architects) need to come up with ideas since we will face this problem sooner or later (there is no bullet proof CD)

Nov 15, 07 3:16 pm
Luis Fraguada

"implementation is not the architect's concern, unless i missed something when studying for my ARE's. "

my apologies for being so general. and of course, your case is not unique Steven, still though this question remains a concern for me... paying someone to figure or not figure out how to make your crazy shit work similar to the average edifice, i.e. keeping the leaks to a minimum is irresponsible.

I remember when I was learning some Catia, a guy from the Ghery Tech crew came to show us their software...if I remember correctly, he showcased the Strata Center Catia model as one they used to communicate with the contractors-sub-contractors. What does this say about moving towards parametric software/solutions in order to better communicate and facilitate the construction process?

Nov 15, 07 9:02 pm

The letter is stupid...sounds to me like someone wants a Gehry-designed house (at a discount). A bad logo wont ruin your computer (unless you stole it from a crafty web designer) and picasso owners don't need he money.

Nov 15, 07 9:29 pm
Pocket Mies

You take 15 million in fees and do CA, you own it...

BTW, complexity is a characteristic not a quality.

Nov 15, 07 10:16 pm

granted, buildings do leak. lets get that past us. someone will probably pay for it. most likely the contractor unless there was some serious negliance to cautions by the gc and oversight by the architect if he didn't inform the client.

Now, i'm talking architecture fundamentals here, not detailing or construction, but it seems like Gehry lacks some common sense that architects should have a knack for (designing in cold/we climate - probably not the best place to place an icy sloping death trap without some mitigation; south facing facade with somewhat dense residential across the street-probably not the best place for a gilmmering titanium facade without mitigation for the glare). Seems like with all the form driven whims, the very basics get glaringly overlooked.

should he be sued for this? thats a good question.

Nov 15, 07 11:37 pm

I don't think that this whole issue is news worthy at all. Buildings often leak. Clients often sue. These are certainly litigious times. The only reason this is in the news is because it is Gehry, who typically has high quality construction, finishes within the deadline, typically on or near the budget (though all are obviously high budgets), and even pays his interns. This story is just so uninteresting.

Nov 16, 07 10:40 am
le bossman

you know what i think? i think everyone here wants to work for frank gehry.

Nov 16, 07 11:03 am
le bossman

it is like homophobia. if you have Gehrifobia, it means you think he's the greatest. i bet, like this image:

you want Lord Frank, The Master, your own personal Jesus Christ, to put his hand on your shoulder and guide your pencil along the parallel bar (please note: you are the guy with the tie). frank gehry, like jesus, is a jewish guy who makes buildings. coincidence?

Nov 16, 07 11:07 am
liberty bell

Best post ever, bossman!

Nov 16, 07 11:30 am
frank gehry, like jesus, is a jewish guy who makes buildings. coincidence?

can i get that on a t-shirt?

Nov 16, 07 1:47 pm
liberty bell

Exactly, AP. I think we've got our next Archinect T.

Nov 16, 07 1:52 pm

i love it. can I get one in black?

Nov 16, 07 2:58 pm
Sir Arthur Braagadocio

I have done free lance for a waterproofing expert architect and one time I detailed a building at his level of waterproofing for another architecy,. when reviewed the other architect basically told me to dumb down the detail to the point where it looked lik 2 lines and a squiggle. I have seen many notable firms waterproofing details and after having been exposed to the experts I can see how they all fall short. I have prety good exposure to a lot of cds in nyc and can tell you most buildings have waterproofing details a gc could draw better than the architect. I imgaine the reason the architect wants to leave the dwgs vague is to somehow hope it gets done right and somehow in a court of law argue the vague dwg was misinterpreted.

the expert waterproofer I mention is one of the few architects I know who could give gc s with 30 years of construction experience a lesson on construction. I find most architects with even 15 years often look to the gc and vendor for help, too much help, sometime warrenting the gc s response "what's my design fee"

I think discussing gehry and leaking is a very good case for an argument I would love academia to listen too. its pretty clear design arguments usually boil down to form, space, and tons of data. that each individual determines our hate for joe schmoe architcture is really just an issue of taste concerning form and light. if academia realized how elementary form and space are and pushed the real part of doing a great building, detailing, knowing more about means and methods than the gc, chemical properties of materials, and understanding what data really matters, maybe architects would be listened to and paid beter because their professional opinion would matter. but instead we argue art like religion is soooo fucking important and as maeda rights more or less, forgive those who push their art on a public and forget to take care of the public for some higher cause that only educated academics can truly appreciate. beyond eye candy.

look at great buildings done by fostern calatrava, and even gehry, they pushed means and methods because the pu4hed new technologies, I could care less about their form and aesthetics,. don't tell me its not my job, why else would I do 6 years of schooling, 3 years interning, 11 exams, continueing education, I can give you fancy forms and say, hey I just desing intent only man, that's what I do,, mold clay, scan it,nd have it built, what do I know about buildings.

art is a losuy excuse for inadequate professionalism.

little more design buiild studios and a little less funky form modeling to data only academics understand.

Nov 16, 07 7:15 pm
Sir Arthur Braagadocio

its like going to your doctor for cancer treatment and having him tell you, I don't know shit about treating this tumor but I am pretty sure I can get my nurse to do a sexy cut,.

Nov 16, 07 7:22 pm
Sir Arthur Braagadocio

I apologize for triple posting but an incident made me ashamed to call myself an architect with the understanding I am intelligent and educated

my home inspector on the first home we bid on gave his theory on why a house built 2 miles from the jersey shore 80 years ago had lolly columns next to a now stucco overed brick columns that supported the floor in the basement. it took him 30 seconds to come up with it and I was slightly awstruck.

when they mixed the mortar for the bricks 80 years ago they used local products for the aggregate which would include a lot of sand due to our close proximity to the beach. too much sand in mortar will eventually lead to excess sand becoming chemically unbounded. with each footstep these sand particles would become loose and eventually free themselves from the mortar. imagine 60 mortar joints loosing particles slowly over 80 years, you are talking a 32nd an inch per joint, so 2 inches total maybe? leading to a sag in the floor.

then he asked me for my opinion .

Nov 16, 07 7:54 pm

so you worked for a specialist in waterproofing? or was he a regular architect who happened to be good with waterproofing?

wither way, so what? maybe gehry should have consulted him. my guess is that he consulted someone of equal quality, or he has similar person on staff. to imply gehry's buildings all leak is specious.

i think maeda is making a point that orthodox boxes can leak too. therefore the problem is not one of form but of construction. conflating and obfuscating the two is not helpful unless another agenda is being pursued. that is just disingenuous. if gehry fcuked up, then he deserves to be sued (maybe), and the problem has to be fixed.

but we still don't know enough, any of us, to make an intelligent comment and all this is personal not objective.

as for the lolly columns. that is a great story. we are privileged to be i a position learn new things about buildings everyday. but i don't think there is any reason to be ashamed or upset if you don't know everything. that is not in the job description. i took a course on historical preservation in grad school where we went through 5 old buildings and did a report on remediation methods and was shocked and impressed by the breadth of knowledge required to even begin that work. it was an amazing learning experience and if it ever comes up i know who to ask to help out. but i don't mind that i can't personally write a book about the subject. it is alright to say, "i don't know". then follow up with "but i'll find out".

not that that has anything to do with frank gehry.

Nov 16, 07 9:10 pm

I've heard Gehry lecture a few times, and each time he emphatically and angrily has said: "my buildings don't leak."

Nov 18, 07 11:53 am
Sir Arthur Braagadocio

sure everything can leak, but i think Maeda is really excusing a professionals mistake by argueing it's art.

someone asked me the other day, what could you sue an architect first response was everything, then i elaborated and took just about all of it back and said - really just waterproofing and fireproofing.

Nov 18, 07 3:14 pm
Sir Arthur Braagadocio


the waterproofing guy is actually a AIA,PE guy who specializes in restoration and waterproofing.

the house inspector was also cool about me not knowing, he told me "hey you're an architect, you bring them dreams, i crush them when I tell them it wasn't built right."

Nov 18, 07 3:18 pm
its like going to your doctor for cancer treatment and having him tell you, I don't know shit about treating this tumor but I am pretty sure I can get my nurse to do a sexy cut,.

again, architects are not doctors. stop comparing the profession with those of doctors. doctors save lives, architects.. not so much.

Nov 19, 07 10:42 pm

architecture was a craft, is a craft, and will always be a craft

Learn to detail, bitches!

Nov 19, 07 11:09 pm

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