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February 20, 2010

When Buildings Fail

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In 2005, just months after it opened, gym locker-sized pieces of glass started falling off Montreal’s shiny new Grande Bibliothèque, shattering on the street below. A building had failed. But at least no one was hurt.

As a quick fix, authorities put up a fence around the $100 million library. But they found it difficult to address the underlying cause. That’s because building failures are not purely technical problems, but cultural ones as well.

Recently we’ve seen a spate of high-profile failures, including malfunctioning elevators in the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, and the leaky roof of Daniel Libeskind’s exuberant Denver Art Museum. These are innocuous, if sometimes expensive, examples. “Blame” here just means finding out who’s going to pay for the repairs – typically by suing someone. Yet failure can also bring tragedy. Last year in Montreal, a piece of falling concrete killed a woman seated in a sidewalk sushi restaurant.

Who’s to blame when buildings fail?

Cost-conscious clients perhaps. The Bibliothèque’s designers, a consortium of Vancouver-based Patkau Architects and Quebec City-based Croft Pelletier architects, got the job through a widely publicized international competition. (A Montreal firm, Menkès Shooner Dagenais, joined the team after the competition.) Jurors praised their design’s sophisticated copper-covered façades. Alas, the copper was quickly ditched as too expensive. So the architects invented a new cladding composed of 6,200 “C”-shaped planks of channel glass, tempered and tinted with a green ceramic coating. But why didn’t the library simply pony up the cash to build the copper prizewinner they commissioned?

The Mark

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