The problem with starchitect-designed, gravity-defying buildings is that they fall apart

A worldly wonder—at least before it started falling apart.
A worldly wonder—at least before it started falling apart.
Image: AP Photo/Fernando Bustamante, File
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As more cities and institutions around the world compete to attract globe-trotting tourists, investors and businesses, more iconic buildings are cropping up to broadcast the innovative spirit and prestige of far-flung places. But the more jaw-dropping the designs of these building become, the more difficult they are to build and maintain, and the more they fall apart.

In the latest mishap, a 176-pound piece of concrete fell off the library building at the Vienna University of Economics and Business designed by British-Iraqi architecture giant Zaha Hadid, Fast.Co reports, following Austrian media. No one was injured in the incident.

Hadid is a “starchitect,” a member of an elite group of designers that includes Rem Koolhas, Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava, and Jean Nouvel. Celebrity architecture has gained speed with globalization and fast-growing economies, as private investors, cities and autocratic governments pour money into otherworldly soccer stadiums, Olympic facilities, and cultural centers.

Hadid’s angular, $580 million building in Vienna, with a massive overhanging structure above the entrance, received the Royal Institute of British Architects’ EU Award last year. It’s the second time the structure failed since its opening in October 2013, with a concrete slab falling to the ground from above the entrance in July, Austrian media reports.

Hadid’s buildings have been disgraced before. In 2011, just a year after the nearly $200 million Guangzhou Opera House in southern China opened to the public, large cracks appeared in the ceilings and walls and glass panels fell from the windows.

Santiago Calatrava, another member of the starchitect tribe, has been in hot water over his buildings’ shortcomings several times. Calatrava faced a number of lawsuits after his impressive-looking structures showed some serious flaws. His hometown of Valencia, Spain threatened him with a lawsuit last year after tiles from a mosaic embedded in the majestic opera house he designed started falling off during high winds. The $650 million structure’s sculpted roof also leaked during heavy rain.

Calatrava also had to pay to repair the roof of the wave-like winery he designed in the La Rioja region in Spain.

In 2007, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued North America’s most famous architect Frank Gehry for cracks, leaks and drainage problems in the cylindrical, asymmetric $300 million Stata Center. “These things are complicated,” Gehry told The New York Times at the time, “and they involved a lot of people, and you never quite know where they went wrong.”

In other words, in the world of architecture, the notion that ”the buck stops here” doesn’t apply.