December 11, 2009

East Building of National Gallery Crumbling After Only 30 Years

NOTE: After writing this article I received the following message from the author of the WSJ article:

"I have read your blog about my WSJ article on Pei's E Bldg wall system but it contains what I believe is a major error--the notion that Pope used expansion joints on his W Bldg marble veneer. This is untrue. The W Bldg marble veneer is mortared as well as anchored to its concrete back-up on the lower level and bonded to a brick substrate on the upper/piano nobile level. The resulting mass obviates the need for expansion joints. The only movement joints on the building are for structural movement and they fall between the wings and the center/rotunda block. I checked this out with the Gallery in reporting the story."

In this week's Wall Street Journal, Catesby Leigh writes about the ongoing problems popping up at the I.M. Pei-designed National Gallery East Building. The WSJ article explains that the facade of the building, constructed using an experimental curtain wall system that the architect described as "a technological breakthrough for the construction of masonry walls," has become unstable. While the article delves into the technological reasons for the failures, it begs the question of why. Why would the architect make a conscious decision to ignore established precedents for the construction in favor of a new, unsustainable system. The answer has more to do with ideological constraints as much as a technological ones.

East Wing of the National Gallery (photo by Iainr, via Flickr)

The facade of the East Wing is constructed of a series of 2'-by-5', 438-pound marble panels that are held in place on a structure of steel hangers attached to a concrete frame. With the use of new rubberized gaskets to seal the joints between the stones and allow for movement to occur, the walls were supposed to last for a half-century or more before needing even minor maintenance. Pei described them as "a technological breakthrough for the construction of masonry walls." It is this system that the WSJ piece describes as the very reason why the facade failed.

But the bigger question is why the building employed such technology in the first place. The following line explains the why:

The [use of the new experimental] gaskets also would spare the East Building the need for wide, visually disruptive expansion joints—a standard feature of curtain wall veneer, running horizontally and vertically at regular intervals to accommodate thermal movement.

The clean lines and solid geometrical forms of the building's design simply could not be interrupted with unsightly expansion joints. I.M. Pei quite simply was shackled to his own modern design, constrained to have large uninterrupted geometries of stone, a technological solution was an absolute necessity. The earlier Main Building, designed by John Russell Pope, had no such constraints.

Expansion joints are hidden behind the pilasters. (photo by Boots)

What most people, even architects don't realize is that the Pope building, like the East Wing, is similarly constructed using a marble veneer over a structural core. What is different, however, is the extensive use of a well established conventions construction and the use of expansion joints. These expansion joints on the facade of the Main Building are cleverly hidden behind clusters of classical pilasters on corners of the facade. Pope, not being constrained by the ideology of modern architecture, was able to find a solution that was at once attractive and still working marvelously almost 60 years after completion.

The essential difference between these buildings is clearly the technology used, but that technology is a direct reflection of the architectural philosophies of each architect. In the former case the architect believed that new materials would provide a "technological breakthrough" to allow him to create the clean lines of modern architecture. Ignoring traditional solutions and the nature of the materials he was working with, it ultimately resulted in structural failure. The latter architect however worked using established precedents of construction that took into consideration natural forces such as expansion and contraction and gravity, and combined this with a sleight of hand possible through classical architecture, created a building that has stood over twice as long with no major failures.

The question of modern versus traditional when it comes to building technology has become more than just a question of style, but that of sustainability. The cladding of the entire East Wing will now have to be removed and restored at the cost of $85 million to the taxpayer. This works out to about 17% of the inflation adjusted cost of the original building ($500 million). Add to the financial cost the immense amount of fuel, energy, and building material waste produced by such a project, the justification for such buildings is becoming more and more difficult. Structural and facade failure in an iconic Modernist building is not without a number of precedents, begging the question of why architects insist upon continuing to build such unsustainable architecture in our enlightened times, again the answer is ideology.

On one hand, architects wisely are beginning to embrace sustainability, but with the other hand cast aside traditional detailing and traditional architecture because of a ideological bias against such architecture. We need to use architecture, all of its lessons to create a better and more sustainable future, here at GGW it seems most everyone looks to tradition when it comes to urbanism, so too we should embrace it in architecture. For architecture to truly be sustainable it must not only welcome back into its repertoire the lessons that traditional and classical architecture have to offer when it comes to construction, but also must be willing to embrace them.


Thayer-D said...

This is a fantastic point. I love your blogs that rattle the conventinal wisdom. Your point about why they don't rehabilitate traditional architecture as they have traditional urbanism is excellent. I'm sure you know why but pushing this point and other good ones will help in putting modernism in it's rightful place. It happened, there's a lot to learn from it, but it fundamentally gets architecture's timless principles wrong, fetishizing technology and intellectual concepts over firmness, commodity, and delight.

Anthony Visco said...

Let's hope they let it die it's not so premature but predicable early death.
Nothing ages quicker than modernism

ken1 said...

I'm wondering--what is being done to ensure that the repaired facade will not fail once again? The East Wing at present looks like a mess.

ken1 said...

What is being done to ensure that the repaired facade will not fail again in a few years? The East Wing looks like a mess. What arrogance the original architect had.

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