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Courting disaster: Pearce offers salutary warning to 'experts'

legal matters

The flurry of interest shown by the architectural world in the case of Pearce v Ove Arup Partnership Ltd and Remment Lucas Koolhaas - sued as Rem Koolhaas (judgment: 2.11.01) - was such that I felt obliged to track down a copy of the judgment.

Thanks to Michael Salau, a partner with solicitor Berrymans Lace Mawer, which acted for Arup, I have had an entertaining afternoon learning how the judiciary can really put the boot in when it has a mind to.

The facts of the case are well known but worth revisiting with some added emphasis from the judge.Mr Pearce is a 'virtually unemployed architect' who is currently 'trying' to do some work on urban monorail systems.When studying for his Diploma at the Architectural Association in London (the AA), his final year project was the design for Docklands Town Hall (DTH).

In 1986, Rem Koolhaas was regarded as 'a very considerable figure' at the AA. He had written an 'acclaimed book', and was 'not just a theoretician'. He was involved in two partnerships known as Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in London and Rotterdam, visiting the London offices at weekends. The judge described him as 'a man driven by his enthusiasm for his subject'.

Pearce and his team sought to 'downgrade' Koolhaas' fame and significance, alleging that he claimed credit for himself for work done by others. The judge found this to be 'entirely untrue - indeed precisely the opposite - others were prepared to give him credit where he himself did not think he had done enough to deserve it'.

In mid 1986, Pearce had an opportunity to work in the OMA office in London as a model maker and 'no doubt hoped he would be noticed'. But it was not a successful relationship.OMA wrote to him about his model work, complaining that 'nothing fitted together'. Nevertheless, it regretted that their relationship 'reached such an unfortunate end' and offered to pay him if he returned its keys.

While working at OMA, Pearce claimed that his DTH plans were surreptitiously copied by Koolhaas and used for his design of the Kunsthal in Rotterdam. He claimed that he was asked to leave his Docklands project at OMA over the weekend because Koolhaas wanted to see it and that he was reluctant to do so.Of this, the judge said: 'I do not think that anything of the sort happened. It is much more likely that Pearce left it, hoping that it would be noticed.'

The judge found that Pearce was an emotional man who gave his evidence with vehemence. He concluded that 'much of it was not believable'.

The legal action against Koolhaas was begun after Pearce visited Rotterdam and saw the Kunsthal being built.He was, he said, 'immediately struck by the similarities between it and my Docklands project'.Of this, the judge said: 'Only a fevered imagination could lead one to the idea that the vertical slab of the Kunsthal was strikingly similar to the vertical slab of the DTH.'

The judge, who had seen models of both and had visited the Kunsthal, found that 'the buildings are simply nothing like each other'. But the greatest judicial criticism was saved for Pearce's 'expert', one Mr Wilkey, whose evidence was described as 'fantastic' by the judge. Although Wilkey claimed to appreciate the seriousness of what he was saying, he made 'blunder after blunder', including not visiting the Kunsthal before making his report; not reading the design brief for the Kunsthal; and being keen to find 'triangles', which were an element alleged to have been copied, to the point that he thought that any triangle must be the result of copying.

The judge said: 'At no point did Wilkey begin to consider, as an architect, how the copying could happen.' He concluded: 'Mr Wilkey said that he understood his duty as an expert. I do not think that he did. He came to argue a case.'

As the judge pointed out, there are no specific sanctions against experts who breach their duty to the court. Instead, he was minded to 'refer Mr Wilkey's conduct to the RIBA'.

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