More On 'Starchitecture’s' Hidden Costs

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Taxpayers in London are angry that it’s costing $220,000 per year just to wash the windows on their new City Hall. Designed by Norman Foster, the semi-spherical building contains more than 3,000 panes of glass, and it’s been costly from the start to keep the windows clean. What really has people indignant, however, is the doubling of the window washing bill since the building opened eight years ago.

The unanticipated maintenance costs have turned some London politicians into architecture critics. Caroline Pidgeon, Liberal Democrat leader at City Hall, told the London EveningStandard: “Clearly there was a fundamental oversight when City Hall was built and no one gave any thought as to how the windows could easily be cleaned at a reasonable cost. As a result of such incompetence a fortune has been spent.”

She called it “a prime example of a modern building where the design has come first and practicalities second.” Ms. Pidgeon has zeroed in on a little-understood reality: The financial risks that clients incur as a result of their infatuation with “iconic” buildings by brand-name "starchitects."

Lord Foster’s London Assembly City Hall is merely the latest in a string of examples where the owners of “cutting edge” buildings have been hit with large, unanticipated costs. For example, the new addition to the Denver Art Museum by starchitect Daniel Libeskind required major repairs to its leaking roof that to date have cost undisclosed millions of dollars. At last report, negotiations were still under way to see who is going to foot the bill for these surprise expenses.

In the last analysis, the blame for these costly snafus belongs more with the clients than with the starchitects who dream up these cockamamie buildings. Institutions worldwide have seized upon the idea that sponsoring an “iconic” building will win them international fame – which will then inspire donors to shower them with money. An architectural arms race has been set in motion in which designers compete to create increasingly bizarre buildings in order to garner accolades from critics and mainstream media.

The costly flaw in this formula is that the pressure to create ever-more spectacular buildings requires starchitects to experiment with shapes, materials and construction details that have no precedent. Many of these large buildings have gotten so complicated that the design architect’s contribution is often little more than a sketch. It’s left to the structural engineers and the contractors to work out the burdensome details of how to actually put the building together. No wonder many of these “architectural icons” end up costing their owners much more than originally budgeted.

When asking for an "iconic building,” clients should bear in mind that the operative maxim isn’t “You get what you pay for.” Rather, when it comes to starchitecture, the client pays. . .and then pays and pays again.