Bashing Architects With Lawsuit, as MIT Did, Kills Innovation

The $300 million Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology doesn’t look much like a research lab. Its brightly colored collision of angular and cylindrical forms seems to line-dance down dour Vassar Street in Cambridge.

Many observers assumed the 720,000-square-foot, nine-story collage couldn’t work as a research center either. Then came a lawsuit.

After the building opened in 2004, it developed several problems, including leaks, cracking bricks, mold and globs of snow crashing on the sidewalk. MIT sued Stata’s architect, Frank O. Gehry, and Beacon Skanska, its builder, in 2007 without naming a figure for damages.

The skeptics gleefully piled on. John Silber, the former president of Boston University, called it a disaster. He had put Stata on the cover of his book “Architecture of the Absurd: How ‘Genius’ Disfigured a Practical Art.”

Many commentators presumed that Gehry was heedless of practicalities, that Stata’s spectacular form was purely artistic whim and that MIT had nothing better to do than indulge its celebrity architect. Witold Rybczynski, architecture critic at the website Slate, made Stata the star of a cavalcade of alleged architectural failures last February, the implication being that bad things only happen to famous buildings.

The leaks and such have been fixed and the suit was settled this past April -- and here’s the word that’s stuck in my craw since then: “amicably.” How is this possible after MIT’s allegations besmirched both Gehry and Skanska? Typical of such settlements, the terms are secret, and none of the parties would discuss the case with me. We’ll never know who was at fault, so no one can learn from it.

Eddies of Space

Is Stata frivolous? Walk with me through the ground-floor “student street,” a popular campus shortcut with ramps circling overhead, lit with shardlike skylights. You are likely to see people talking over laptops or scribbling on blackboards. Symposia often spill into the hallway as passersby stop to see why the chatter is so animated. Up a level or two, Gehry all but banished hallways. You move past lounges, open two-story seminar spaces, and eddies of whiteboard-equipped space often occupied by impromptu collaborators.

Stata’s beehive quality is intentional. At the furthest edge of research, working within the old disciplines no longer makes sense. Gehry’s team designed a building of laboratory “neighborhoods” to support communities of researchers. At Stata, linguistics, artificial-intelligence and computer scientists work together, but more boundaries need to be crossed. Stata throws people together so that every researcher has a shot at encountering the person he never thought of who turns out to have a skill that’s needed.

Risk in Design

Gehry’s spatial intricacy entailed risk, because everyone knew going in that the design was to some degree an act of social engineering, and such attempts don’t always work. But MIT, the scientists involved and funders including Microsoft Corp. co-founder William Gates recognized that the potential rewards were high. I checked back with scientists and administrators I had interviewed in the past, including two who had left, and all deemed the building a success.

Leaving the suit’s accusations unexplained does worse than bruise big-name egos, however. Here’s the takeaway: It’s really best to build labs that line up benches in regimented rows and crush spirits with long dim hallways. If they leak, as so many lazy campus eyesores do, no one will make a cause of it.

Rybczynski had written that “experiments belong in the laboratory, not on the construction site.” He would be correct if there were a laboratory for U.S. construction, but the fragmented industry supports almost no research, nor does the government. To advance the state of the art means to build innovation into real buildings in real time.

U.S. Leadership

That’s hardly ideal, yet it has been responsible for America’s leadership in building technology, from steel framing to air conditioning and advanced glass.

Risk aversion has become the rule, however, in part because bashing big-name innovators is in style. I.M. Pei and other celebrity architects are frequent whipping boys. America’s prowess in design and construction has eroded.

The best architects and owners recognize that needs, technologies and modes of expression all evolve over time. We should be expecting a great deal of buildings these days. They must appropriately house our increasingly complex endeavors with sensitivity to energy, climate change and whatever else the future throws at us.

We should applaud buildings that take reasonable risks and encourage architects and clients to embrace innovation.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)