Are 'Starchitects' Now Immune to Lawsuits?

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The $10 million lawsuit that the Art Institute of Chicago has lodged over alleged defects in its recently completed Modern Wing suggests there's a new paradigm at work in the world of architecture: "Too Famous to Sue."

Usually, when disputes arise over construction of a new building, the client will sue everyone in sight: architect, construction manager, general contractor, engineering firm - and anyone else who touched the project. But not in this case: The Art Institute is suing only the engineering firm, the world-famous Ove Arup & Partners. Totally ignored in the Museum's lawsuit is the design architect, Renzo Piano.

Cynics in Chicago say Renzo Piano escaped being named in the complaint because it would be too embarrassing for the Museum. The Institute's Trustees had heavily promoted "starchitect" Renzo Piano's name when raising funds for the $300 million project. To turn around and now sue their brand-name starchitect would be just too awkward for the donors, say the cynics. As a result, Arup drew the short straw.

Most interesting of the allegations are that engineering designs allowed too much light to enter some galleries and required the museum to install film on certain windows. In addition, the curtain wall and some skylights had to be redesigned or reconstructed to control condensation. This is fascinating because Renzo Piano is famous for his crystalline glass structures and the sophisticated way in which his buildings admit light. Thus it's amazing to some observers that Arup alone would get tagged for deficiencies relating to the building's glass skin, which is central to the design concept.

There apparently is also a continuing problem in the entrance vestibule that occasionally requires the museum's staff to use portable heaters to clear fogged glass. Other complaints in the lawsuit include alleged errors and omissions in heating and cooling systems, concrete floors, a portion the famous "flying carpet" roof and incorrect structural engineering. Flaws of this nature are not unusual in a complex new building; what is surprising is that only Arup is holding the bag.

This apparent new legal immunity for designers will come as good news to many starchitects, but it's too late for Frank Gehry. He was sued (along with the contractor) in late 2007 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology over alleged design and construction defects in MIT's new Stata Center. The suit was quietly settled earlier this year on undisclosed terms. Apparently the "Too Famous to Sue" rule came into effect after MIT filed its lawsuit.