The Pearce vs. Koolhaas case

The Docklands Town Hall designed by Gareth Pearce  
Gareth Pearce Docklands Town Hall 1985

A case of architectural plagiarism and its scandalous cover-up

When British architect Gareth Pearce discovered that his project for a Town Hall in London Docklands had been plagiarised, he decided to take legal action to defend his intellectual property. It was a blatant case of graphic copying. It also happened that the perpetrator was the acclaimed Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. What follows is an account of how the course of justice was perverted by an architecturally naïve judge in awe of celebrity status and father of an aspiring architect son.


The background
With his freshly achieved Architectural Association Diploma, in 1986 Gareth Pearce briefly worked in the London architects office of Elia Zenghelis. The partnership between Rem Koolhaas and Zengelis had ended in 1981, but Koolhaas remained a regular visitor to the office on week-ends. One day the practice manager asked Pearce to bring into the office his portfolio of drawings – including his Docklands Town Hall diploma project – so that collegues, among them Koolhaas, could see them. Upon collecting his plans from the office following one of Koolhaas’s weekend visits Pearce noticed that the original ink drawings had been separated from the paintings and drawings. The plans were separately rolled up as if they had returned from the print shop. At the time he did not think much of this.
Some years later while touring Rotterdam Pearce happened upon a construction site and immediately recognised his Docklands Town Hall under construction. The building’s name was the ‘Kunsthal’, the architect Rem Koolhaas. Pearce obtained a set of planning application drawings from the Rotterdam Planning Authority and laid his original plans for the Docklands Town Hall over them. The plans contained an astoundingly high number of perfectly matching graphic elements. There was no doubt that the original design for the Docklands Town Hall had been the basis for the ‘Kunsthal’.

The legal action
Pearce started a legal action for plagiarism against Rem Koolhaas. He appointed Fredrick Hill RIBA, one of the best reputed architectural expert witnesses in the UK, to provide an authoritative opinion. Frederick Hill's expert report constitutes the first independent support of the claim of plagiarism. However Mr Hill became unwell during the run up to the trial and a second independent expert witness, Michael Wilkey RIBA , was appointed. Michael Wilkey's expert report was written without knowledge of the earlier report and provided even more extensive evidence of plagiarism.

Before the trial reached the High Court, Koolhaas was awarded in 2000 the prestigious Pritzker Prize for architecture. The awarding panel was not aware of the plagiarism evidence. Koolhas was also made an honorary member of the RIBA, which conveniently filled a gap in his professional qualifications. These events did not fail to impress Hon. Justice Jacob. He had previously written about the technical legal aspects of this case in a way that suggests that he thought Pearce was an opportunist. He described Pearce as a 'virtually unemployed architect'. When Pearce brought up the importance of formal professional qualifications (which Pearce had achieved, while Koolhaas had not) Justice Jacob dismissed them with the revealing statement that his own son was an unqualified architect, but not less of an architect because of that. From later events it became apparent how much of his thinking was influenced by his son's opinions.

From the very beginning of the trial Justice Jacob took a very aggressive stance against Pearce's expert witness, questioning whether he really stood by his report. At one point he instructed Michael Wilkey to think of his career and to reconsider his evidence. He placed Michael Wilkey in the witness box then put the Court into recess while Wilkey remained under oath. When the Court resumed Justice Jacob asked him if he had changed his view and he replied that he had not.

In the following proceedings Justice Jacob dismissed all the evidence laid before him by the expert witness. Although the claim alleged plagiarism of the plans, that is, graphic copying of two-dimensional elements, he insisted in comparing Pearce's plans with the built 3-dimensional Kunsthal, which diluted the evidence of copying for all but trained professionals. Astonishingly, Koolhaas was allowed to get away with not showing his original plans of the Kunsthal. In his Judgment Justice Jacob ruled heavily against Gareth Pearce for making his claim, which he defined as 'preposterous fantasy'. Justice Jacob's confidence in his own architectural insight went so far that he accused the architect Michael Wilkey of professional negligence and held him responsible for the case coming to trial. He then referred Michael Wilkey to his professional body the Architects Registration Board to be disciplined and possibly struck off.

An unexpected discovery
Michael Wilkey however claimed he is innocent of any professional misconduct because he is right in his expert view. He prepared his defence with further Expert Evidence from the most respected Architect Expert in the United Kingdom Ian Salisbury RIBA. By commissioning Ian Salisbury to become his expert witness, Michael Wilkey uncovered something that would otherwise have been kept secret forever by usual confidentiality rules. Because he was now acting as an expert witness in this case, Mr Salisbury was forced to disclose that he had been approached by Mr Koolhaas before the Pearce trial with a request that he provide architect expert evidence that Koolhaas had not plagiarised the plans of the Docklands Town Hall. Mr Salisbury had examined the plans and found that plagiarism had indeed occurred and he had not been commissioned to represent Koolhaas. Now, despite the injunctions from Koolhaas' legals that he should not act as Wilkey's expert witness, he was able to report on his findings.

The expert evidence of Ian Salisbury was received by the Architects Registration Tribunal and a Judgment clearing Michael Wilkey of wrongdoing was made. Thus 3 professional architect expert witnesses had independently concluded that plagiarism of Pearce's plans by Koolhaas had occurred, yet the biased and architecturally flawed judgement of Justice Jacob defined Pearce's claims as fantasy.

Grounds for appeal
One might assume that, presented with evidence that one of its professional members had been unjustly treated, the ARB would assist in providing documents in its possession so that the injustice might be corrected. Not so. When Gareth Pearce requested from the ARB a copy of the Ian Salibury evidence in order to proceed to the Court of Appeal the ARB stubbornly refused to provide it. Obviously other interests must be involved.

After the ARB refused to honour the Freedom of Information Act, Pearce referred the ARB's stonewalling to his MP Mark Field who took the case up with the Parliamentary Ombudsman. Out of the blue the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister wrote to Mark Field stating that releasing the Ian Salisbury evidence was not in the public interest. This prevented Gareth Pearce from immediately appealing the decision of Justice Jacob at the Court of Appeal.

Eventually the Parliamentary Ombudsman informed Gareth Pearce that Jurisdiction over the Architects Registration Board does not lay with the Office for the Deputy Prime Minister but with the most ancient part of the Government of the United Kingdom, that of the Crown. The Ombudsman further informed Mr Pearce that an Incursion into Crown Jurisdiction is an offence and that an MP must report this to Her Majesty’s Privy Council. Gareth Pearce subsequently informed his MP Mark Field who the referred the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to Privy Council.

In the end Gareth Pearce obtained a copy of the Ian Salisbury report from a confidential source. But a long time has passed, too long, some say, for an appeal. Is it ever too late for the truth to emerge and justice to prevail?

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