Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Crumbling Egos

Eric Felten's De Gustibus column in the 24 September Wall Street Journal (link here) has the intriguing title "Pardon Us, But Our Museum Is Falling Apart."

He cites defect examples that include the new Modern Wing of Chicago's Art Institute and I.M. Pei's National Gallery East Building -- the latter apparently needing an extensive re-skinning.

Then there are the cost over-runs. Felten mentions an addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum that was budgeted at $35 million but came in at $125 million, nearly four times the estimate.

What is going on here?

Radically designed buildings are essentially massive inventions produced and sold without prototypes. Is it any surprise they tend to be glitchy?

There have always been building failures (you would not want to have been standing in the choir of the Beauvais Cathedral the evening of 29 Nov., 1284). But the impractical nature of much current architecture has made it a pressing modern problem.

And then there's this bit that warms the cockles of my black little modernist-distrusting heart:

"The forms of traditional buildings, such as pitched roofs and moldings, almost always contribute to proper weathering, shedding water, and protecting the structure," says Steven W. Semes, a professor of architecture and academic director of Notre Dame's Rome Studies Program. "Modern buildings often assume shapes that do the opposite, directing water into the building rather than away from it."

I've been aware of the last point by virtue of living most of my life in the drizzly Pacific Northwest: essentially flat roofs are harder to drain than peaked ones.

But the point about large, flash, ego-statement building being engineering experiments hadn't sunk into my brain even though it should have years ago. Thank you, Eric, for highlighting this.

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