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Broad Collection sues engineering firm Seele Inc. over museum facade

ArtEntertainmentArchitectureMuseumsInsuranceFrank GehryUniversity of Chicago
Broad Collection sues Seele Inc. claiming construction delays
Broad Collection says Seele Inc.'s construction delays have pushed back museum's opening by at least 15 months

An engineering subcontractor's delays in carrying out the most distinctive design features of the exterior of the Broad Collection contemporary art museum in downtown Los Angeles have put the project at least 15 months behind schedule, according to a suit the museum has brought against Seele Inc., the Germany-based engineering company.

The Broad, as the $140-million museum will be known for short, will showcase Eli and Edythe Broad's art collection behind a honeycomb-like facade known as "the veil," punctured by an eye-like upstairs glassed-in window known as the "oculus," which peers eastward above Grand Avenue toward City Hall and the neighboring Museum of Contemporary Art and Colburn School.

The lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court alleges that Seele failed to live up to a guarantee that its work would be "of extraordinary quality, consistent with 'world-renowned German engineering'" and would "deliver a product that was not 'mere Tiffany,' but 'Cartier' quality."

The Broad Collection is seeking at least $19.8 million in damages from Seele and its insurers because of extra costs stemming from delays.

Karen Denne, a Broad spokeswoman, said Tuesday that the museum, originally planned to open this fall, is now expected to open in 2015, but that no date has been set yet.

She said that the building is not expected to suffer aesthetically from the issues that led to the lawsuit, and that its appearance will match the original renderings by its architects, the New York City firm of Diller, Scofidio + Renfro. "We believe that the veil will ultimately reflect the vision of the architects and the Broads," Denne said.

Officials for Seele did not respond immediately Tuesday to requests for comment.

Seele's other projects in the United States include the elaborate glass-and-steel dome of the University of Chicago's main library that opened in 2011. Seele's website says that other building facades it has engineered and installed include the "Apple Cube," a glassed-in cube that houses an Apple retail store in Manhattan, and the "Bird's Nest" sports stadium built in Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

The suit says that Seele's work was supposed to begin early in 2012, after it had spent three months consulting with the architects about their design and how to realize it. When Seele delivered mock-ups of the panels that were to make up the honeycomb, the suit alleges, they showed that "it had ignored the design intent … [and] violated the important 'aesthetic aspect' of the architect's design."

The mock-ups, it added "were unsightly and wholly unacceptable for use on the project. [They] revealed the full extent of Seele's misunderstanding of the design intent and inability properly to perform its … duties."

Consequently, the suit contends, Seele was not able to meet an Oct. 25, 2013, contractual deadline for designing, fabricating and installing the facade, which caused a domino effect that pushed back the timetable for other aspects of the project.

The museum's general contractor, Santa Fe Springs-based Matt Construction, is also a plaintiff in the case, contending that it had to absorb costs caused by other delays that resulted from the delay in fabricating and installing the facade.

The suit says that the Broad Collection's contract with Seele called for the engineering company to be paid $29.3 million, with no additional compensation if the work proved more costly or time-consuming than Seeele had anticipated in signing the deal.

In an interview with The Times last September, Elizabeth Diller, the museum's lead architect, said that "we lost a lot of time" after "our engineer" had proposed a more unconventional approach to the honeycombed "veil." Diller, who did not specifically name Seele as the engineer, said that the more unconventional approach called for using a heavier material, precast concrete, instead of a lighter glass-fiber-reinforced concrete her firm originally wanted to use. Diller said the heavier material turned out to be impractical in light of L.A.'s special building safety requirements in case of earthquakes; meeting them would have required so much steel reinforcement that "it just didn't make sense," and designers went back to the lighter concrete.

Construction difficulties and delays were at the heart of a 2003 lawsuit and countersuit between builders and the nonprofit corporation that oversaw construction of Walt Disney Concert Hall — the Broad museum's next-door neighbor. The issue was who should pay for cost overruns stemming from delays the builders attributed to changes in the original plan. The ensuing settlement lifted the project's official cost from $273 million to $284 million. The builders received an additional $4.5 million from architect Frank Gehry's insurers, although the settlement ascribed no fault to Gehry's work.

The Broad Collection's lawsuit also names Zurich American Insurance Company and Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland as defendants. They are the backers of a performance bond guaranteeing Seele's work.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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ArtEntertainmentArchitectureMuseumsInsuranceFrank GehryUniversity of Chicago
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