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Science center drops French architect as price outraces budget

Nouvel's design for expansion too costly

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

A little more than a year ago, Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh announced that noted Parisian architect Jean Nouvel had won the competition to design a $90 million expansion of Carnegie Science Center.

Jean Nouvel planned a cantilevered building over the Ohio River.

Yesterday, in a brief, tersely worded news release, Carnegie Museums announced that it has terminated its contract with Nouvel, citing a "dramatic difference between the budget for the project and the estimated cost." It did not give a figure for the difference.

"We are extremely disappointed that this course of action was necessary and that Jean Nouvel will not be the architect for the expansion of Carnegie Science Center," the museum's statement said.

It added that it was considering litigation against the architect's firm, Ateliers Jean Nouvel.

In Paris, Nouvel's director of operations, Brian Wait, was even more tight-lipped.

"I have absolutely no statement to make to you at this time," Wait said when reached by phone. He would take no questions.

"I'm sure you understand our position," he said. "We very much regret the board's decision."

The science center will proceed with a new expansion plan, the museums' statement said.

"The need to expand the science center in order to meet current and future visitor demands and participate in the development efforts along the North Shore is very real, and we will address that need as soon as possible with a new plan for expansion," the statement said.

In November, Carnegie Museums President Ellsworth Brown said the science center's expansion was two-fifths of the way through the design process.

"We're working on the proportions of the mass and the way it ties into the building," he said. "We're two or three Nouvel visits away from having something to show."

Brown said at the time that the building still had another six to eight months in design, and that fund-raising for the project wouldn't begin until much of the design work was complete.

In February, museum spokeswoman Betsy Momich refused to acknowledge rumors of a design stalemate.

"It's difficult," she said then, "but we have a process in place and an architect that we have confidence can and will deliver."

At the time of the competition, Nouvel's design, which cantilevered over the Ohio River, appeared to be one of the more complicated and expensive options.

His first scheme stacked six stories of glass and metal clad boxes above the existing building, with each box housing a different program or function.

When three of the five competing architects were asked to refine their schemes, Nouvel returned with a less complicated, more transparent building. It still rose six stories above the older building, but the number of boxes was reduced and several functions were combined within each.

The exterior walls of Nouvel's exhibit areas were to be glass, and some might have been animated with etched or projected images. The cantilevered portion jutted 80 feet over the river and housed floors with broad views up and down the rivers.

A year ago, Nouvel's design was chosen because the jury liked the "transparency, elegance, boldness and daring" of his work, said former science center director Seddon Bennington. Bennington and Brown also wanted a design that could compete in scale with neighboring Heinz Field.

Bennington said then that the design would "change a lot as we work with Jean and his team. The analysis to date is that there's lots of expense in stacking it up and achieving that dramatic cantilever. On the other hand, we don't want to compromise any of that strength. Who knows where that will lead Jean in his thinking?"

Bennington, who became director of the national museum in his native New Zealand in December, could not be reached for comment.

Last spring, Nouvel wouldn't speculate how the design might evolve.

"I never have one idea about the end of the process," he said. "I can change. It's not a problem for me, but I like to find good reasons."

The termination of the Nouvel design is a major setback for the Pittsburgh riverfront and the science center, which had expected to complete the final design this spring and open the expanded building in 2008.

Nouvel, who likely was paid for part of his work to date, also has had a temporary setback in Minneapolis. Only $64 million has been raised to build his new $125 million Guthrie Theater. That project won't move forward until the state approves $26 million in bond funds.

Nouvel won't run into money troubles in Rio de Janeiro, where a city budget surplus will pay for his new $130 million Guggenheim museum, expected to open in 2007.

Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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