Rogers' latest building cracks up

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The Independent Online
A pounds 27m building designed by the architect Lord Rogers of Riverside to house the law courts of Bordeaux has suffered a major structural fault within days of being completed. Glass fins supporting the facade of the Ministere de la Justice building, handed over last week, shattered after the jointed facade moved.

The striking building displays a series of wooden court chambers, reminiscent of the barrels used to age the local wine, behind a 75-metre glass facade.

The huge expanse of glass, intended to communicate ease of access to the public, is strengthened by vertical glass fins, or mullions, bonded perpendicularly to the facade. But the mullions are breaking. "It has been identified that one part of the assembly does not comply with the agreement for special structures (a 10-year warranty covering novel architectural details). This part of the assembly is being replaced," said a spokesperson for Richard Rogers Partnership.

This is the latest in a run of misfortunes facing buildings designed by Rogers, architect of the Millennium Dome. Last month, the architectural firm agreed an out-of-court settlement with Lloyd's of London. Rogers' most famous Eighties client threatened to sue to recover the cost of replacing some of the building's distinctive exterior pipes which had become corroded. Cost of repair work, said to be in the region of pounds 10m, will now be shared by five firms involved in the building's design and construction.

Rogers' famous 1970s Parisian landmark, the Pompidou Centre, has been closed for a year for a major refurbishment in preparation for the new millennium.

In Bordeaux, architects and contractors have followed the time-honoured pattern by blaming one another for the failure. Richard Rogers Partnership issued a statement saying that "the principal facade of the building (was) designed and supplied by Bluntzer group". But the contractor insists the problem is due to movement in the steel structure of the building - the responsibility of the architects and structural engineers Ove Arup - which is "exerting excessive pressure on the facade".

Gregory Bluntzer said: "There is no problem. It's a few mullions. All the time you can have some troubles like everybody else. I have a big respect for this man, Lord Rogers. We will stop this conversation at this time."

Such difficulties are something of a feature of innovative architecture. Tiles fell off James Stirling's History Faculty Library in Cambridge. Norman Foster's Renault Centre in Swindon had a leaky roof. Room-height glass panes sprang out from the mirror-like facade of the 60-storey Hancock Building in Boston designed by IM Pei. It is the high-tech architects who seem to have the most trouble with new technology and materials. Recently, some of the glass panels that move like scales on the roof of Nicholas Grimshaw's award-winning Waterloo International Terminal became dislodged.

Sometimes, architects fail to anticipate something as obvious as sunshine. The glazed perimeter corridor of Norman Foster's 1971 temporary offices for IBM in Cosham became known as the Ho Chi Minh trail for its unpleasantly tropical climate. More recently, Dominique Perrault's Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris experienced a similar problem. The four massive right- angled glass towers like open books known in France as the TGB (tres grande bibliotheque), had to have screens installed to protect the books inside from direct sunlight.

The glazing technology used by Rogers in Bordeaux is now considered a fairly conventional technique, according to Dr Stephen Ledbetter, director of the Centre for Window and Cladding Technology at Bath University. In the past, architects such as Foster and Rogers have fought to persuade manufacturers such as Pilkington to bring out more innovative products. "Now British architects are a lot more innovative and successful with glass structures. We lead the world in that," said Ledbetter.