Update: The architecture firm in this story wrote us on Thursday to say that I.M. Pei has retired and that Pei himself had no role in the project itself. The story has been updated accordingly.

Ithaca, N.Y. — Cornell University has filed a lawsuit against the architecture firm founded by I.M. Pei that accuses it of submitting “inherently flawed and materially defective” designs for the Johnson Museum of Art’s recent expansion.


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Cornell alleges that the firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners committed “architectural malpractice” in its plans for the new wing of the museum, leading to structural deficiencies, cavities in the roof, cracks in the ceiling and other problems.

The university says it has suffered “at least” $1.1 million in damages as a result of the flawed designs.

Pei’s firm, which also designed the original museum in 1968, was hired by the university to build the addition in 2006. The new wing was completed in 2011, though construction continued into 2012.

In a statement provided to the Ithaca Voice on Wednesday, Pei Cobb Freed Managing Partner George Miller said that the firm “has enjoyed a long and productive relationship with the University, but we can’t comment on pending litigation.”

Cornell also declined to talk about the lawsuit. “Inasmuch as this matter is now in litigation, the University has no comment,” says Joel Malina, Vice President for University Relations.

The Johnson Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Cornell.edu

The lawsuit was filed on April 24 in documents made available via the Tompkins County Court.

Though it also names the Syracuse-based Murnane Building Contractors as defendants, the bulk of the lawsuit revolves around showing that Pei’s designs were “fundamentally flawed.”

“Pei was at all times under a duty to Cornell to perform its work in a matter that conformed to the standard of skill and care ordinarily employed by professional architects,” the university’s complaint states.

“Pei breached this duty of care and negligently performed its work by failing to exercise due care in the performance of its professional obligations, failing to meet the standard of skill and care appropriate to a professional architect, and by failing to demonstrate the expertise and competence possessed by others in the field.”

Pei, regarded by many as the most important architect alive, has designed dozens of world-famous structures. These include the JFK Airport, the Louvre Pyramid, the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha and the John Hancock Tower.

Born in China, the 98-year-old architect has also won the Royal Gold Medal and the Pritzker Architecture Prize — perhaps the most prestigious award in all of architecture.

I.M. Pei, whose firm is now being sued by Cornell, designed the Louvre Pyramid in the 1980s.

This is not the first time, however, Pei’s firm has been sued. The architect faced a lawsuit as well after problems emerged with the 60-story John Hancock Tower, The Boston Globe reported in 2007.

In the lawsuit filed by Cornell, the university says that the Johnson museum wanted to expand to accommodate its growing art collection and higher visitor traffic.

“The Museum is a centerpiece of Cornell’s Ithaca campus, both for the iconic design of the building and the impressively large and diverse art collection it houses,” the lawsuit says.

However, Cornell says, the designs submitted by Pei’s firm in the late 2000’s have made it more difficult for the university to draw donations and visitors. The lawsuit says Cornell is “deeply dissatisfied with the design and construction of the building.”

Among the main complaints of the university:

1 — Cornell says Pei’s design of the building “makes it impossible” for the temperature and humidity agreed upon in their contract to be met.

2— Pei’s design was “materially defective” in part because it does not allow for the maintenance or repair of piping and wiring in the roof structure, according to Cornell’s lawsuit.

“Pei’s design necessitates major construction and disruption for routine maintenance and minor repairs,” the lawsuit states.

3 — Interior water vapor caused condensation of windows in the building, Cornell says. There was also “condensation” in the north mezzanine wall and “poor adhesion” of the roof, the university says.

4 — Pei’s configuration of light fixtures led to “stress concentrations” and cracking at the corners of the structure. “These stress concentrations have created aesthetic flaws and may permit leaking,” Cornell says in its lawsuit.

“The numerous problems that have arisen throughout the building are indicative of a fundamentally flawed design,” Cornell’s lawsuit states.

5 — The design failures compromise the museum’s ability “to store artwork safely,” the university says.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.