National Gallery East Wing. Photo by Iainr.

The facade of the I.M. Pei-designed National Gallery East Wing is now crumbling.

Catesby Leigh reports in the Wall Street Journal that 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 technological reasons for the failure have become clear, the real question is why the architect consciously ignored established construction methods in favor of a new, unsustainable system. The answer has more to do with ideological constraints than technological ones.

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.”

This is the system that is now failing. Why did Pei use this new system instead of a tried-and-true method?

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 E. Bootsma)

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.