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Crackup at Chicago's Modern Wing
Art Institute files $10 million suit against Arup over laundry list of alleged flaws at Piano-designed museum
Though most of the problems were remedied well before the Modern Wing's 2009 opening, the Art Institute says it continues to suffer from engineering-related flaws, including condensation in the vestibule.
Charles G. Young/Interactive Design Architects

International engineering firm Ove Arup & Partners says it is “disappointed” over a lawsuit alleging that faulty engineering work cost millions of dollars in repairs to the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing addition before its opening in May 2009. The Institute submitted the complaint in U.S. District Court on September 21, outlining a list of defects it says resulted from “woefully inadequate” engineering and asking for $10 million in damages from the London-based firm, which collaborated with its Chicago offices on the Renzo Piano–designed project.

“We did attempt to come to an agreement with Arup before filing the lawsuit, but our attempts to do that were unsuccessful. We’d worked our way through the mediation process,” said Erin Hogan, director of public affairs for the Art Institute.

The museum’s complaint says serious problems resulted from defective engineering documents and specifications made by Arup. Among these are air-handling systems, including temperature and humidity controls, that were incorrectly sized to create the proper environment for artwork; cracked and curling concrete sub-floors that delayed installation of wooden gallery floors; and loud whistling along the museum’s roof of curved steel blades during windy weather. The filing also says that Piano’s design for the bridge structure specified a sharp, knife-like appearance, but that the engineers' specifications produced a wavy outside edge that had to be reworked over a period of months.

Though almost all of the problems were remedied well before the museum’s opening, the Art Institute says they were time-consuming and unexpected—engineering designs that allowed too much light to enter galleries required the museum to install film on some windows, and the curtain wall and skylights had to be redesigned or reconstructed to control condensation, which is an ongoing problem in the entrance vestibule, where the museum occasionally uses portable heaters to clear fogged glass. Paradoxically, in May Arup received an international citation for the project’s natural and artificial lighting schemes, which included daylight that filters into galleries through the roof structure and facade.

Trina Foster, Arup’s U.S. director of marketing and communication, emailed AN a statement regarding the suit: “Arup are disappointed to note the recent filing by the Art Institute in relation to the Modern Wing project. We are very proud of our contribution to the award-winning Modern Wing, and will continue to work with the Art Institute to find an amicable resolution to their concerns and ours. The issues under discussion are not unusual for a large and complex museum project and we maintain our view that we have acted consistently with the high standards expected of our profession.”

As inquiries into problems like leaks at Frank Gehry’s Stata Center or cracking concrete at the new Yankee Stadium have shown, it can be difficult to prove whether design, engineering, or construction is to blame for problems in large structures. Others involved in the Modern Wing project, including Piano’s firm, architect of record InterActive Design, and construction manager Turner are not named in the suit.

Even as it moves forward as plaintiff, the Art Institute must carefully protect its status as a world-class museum. “Our reputation rests on keeping artworks safe,” said Hogan. “There was never any art in jeopardy whatsoever.” Though the museum opened on time and on budget, Hogan said the Art Institute does not want to pay for duplicative work performed to correct problems. Even so, it would seem that those involved can agree on one thing: “I really want to stress that we love the building and we believe it’s a really successful building,” said Hogan.

Jennifer K. Gorsche