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Commentary: An omission of contrition

Traffic backs up Jan. 15 on Interstate 794 where lanes merge with Interstate 94 in Milwaukee. Wisconsin Department of Transportation officials in spring re-striped the lanes of westbound I-794 to remedy a design flaw. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Traffic backs up recently on Interstate 794 where lanes merge with Interstate 94 in Milwaukee. WisDOT officials in spring re-striped the lanes of westbound I-794 to remedy a design flaw. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

By Caley Clinton

It didn’t take long for state transportation officials to acknowledge something had gone wrong with the Marquette Interchange redesign.

When the Wisconsin Department of Transportation in summer 2012 reconfigured the interchange to relieve backups on the ramp from southbound Interstate 43, it “robbed Peter to give to Paul” by stealing a lane of westbound Interstate 794, said David Nguyen, project development chief with WisDOT.

The resulting gridlock as westbound drivers merged to one lane left them furious and caused many to avoid the interchange and seek alternate routes, which in turn clogged city streets.

The flaw was the result, Nguyen said, of bad traffic data during the design process. And though it did not take long for WisDOT to acknowledge its error, the department had to hear about the mess all winter as it waited to repair its mistake in spring.

“It was difficult,” Nguyen said. “We wanted to get out there and fix it immediately. But if we opened up the pavement that near winter, it wouldn’t cooperate.”

Such are the hazards of the art of public design. Frank Lloyd Wright, in a 1931 lecture, famously observed: “The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines.”

Aspiring designers can let fear of such failures cripple their creativity, or they can learn vital lessons, said Robert Greenstreet, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning.

“Building failure is a great learning moment in getting it right the next time,” he said.

In Greenstreet’s freshman-level architecture class, affectionately dubbed “You Will be Sued,” the dean of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning said he uses case studies of public failures to give students “a healthy respect for what they do.”

“We can hurt people,” Greenstreet said. “People think about architecture as a creative and productive art, but the negative aspect is, we can put people in harm’s way.”

Not everyone respects that power, however. Uruguayan-born architect Rafael Viñoly, who in 1995 won a Medal of Honor from the American Institute of Architects, now faces fallout from his second public failure in three years.

Viñoly’s curved glass design for a skyscraper under construction in London, deemed the Walkie Talkie building because of its shape, is wreaking havoc on the street below. The building reflects a scorching beam of sunlight that singed a rug outside a nearby shop, fried an enterprising journalist’s egg and even melted part of a Jaguar.

This isn’t the first time Viñoly’s mistake has burned a client. In 2010, guests at the Vdara Hotel and Spa in Vegas, another curved glass structure he designed, complained of severe burns from the glare reflected off the building’s façade.

That someone approved Viñoly’s design for another searing skyscraper so soon after the Vdara failure is shocking in its own right, but that the architect did not stop himself from further marring his legacy is baffling.

He’s not the first designer to let ego get in the way of practicality. Frank Lloyd Wright “wasn’t interested in building for longevity,” Greenstreet said, and only through recent technology have many of his buildings been preserved.

“Wright was the great architect of the 20th Century,” he said, “but there is a litany of flaws in his buildings.”

Such blatant blunders separate egotists such as Wright and Viñoly from the design team at WisDOT.

Embarrassing as the Marquette Interchange snafu was, it was an innocent mistake caused by plugging inaccurate numbers into a traffic simulation model. Nearly a year after the fact, Nguyen remains refreshingly contrite about the resulting mess.

Viñoly, on the other hand, has yet to apologize for either of his glaring errors.

Caley Clinton is The Daily Reporter’s associate editor. She was one of the aforementioned “westbound drivers” who was “furious.”

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