People make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes happen on the job. Usually, the incident is corrected and the whole thing is forgotten within minutes. However, the workplace mistake is harder to ignore when the person who makes it is an architect. After all, when the teenager working the drive-thru window gives you a Quarter Pounder instead of a Big Mac, it causes a lot less trauma than when a 3,000-foot-long suspension bridge collapses into the Puget Sound.
In "The Yale Book of Quotations," the legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright is quoted as saying, “The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines.” While this statement from 1954 is still true today, it doesn’t take into account the architectural, design, and engineering errors that became possible in the decades after his death. Those mistakes have been bigger, costlier, and more spectacular than Wright could have imagined, and there are not enough vines in the world to hide them.
What are some of the more notable architectural failures in modern history? Click ahead to find out.
By Daniel Bukszpan
Posted 22 August 2011
The Aon Center is the third-tallest building in Chicago. It was completed in 1973 and was originally named the Standard Oil Building. When it was completed, the building was a visual wonder to behold, thanks to the decision to sheath the entire structure in Italian Carrara marble. The building looked great, but its fetching exterior came at a very high price.
Carrara marble is much thinner than building materials normally used to clad buildings, and in 1974 one of the slabs detached from the building and crashed into the roof of the neighboring Prudential Center. An investigation revealed the completely unsuitable marble was cracking and bowing all over the exterior. Ultimately, the building was refaced with granite at a cost of more than $80 million.
Most parents who take their children to the playground know the drill. Before putting their kids into a swing, they touch it first to make sure the seat, which has been sitting in the sun all day, isn’t too hot. However, the designers of the playground at Pier One in New York’s Brooklyn Bridge Park managed to overlook this principle when they designed three play structures for children to climb on, and built them out of steel.
The domed structures regularly became too hot to touch, much less climb. Geoffrey Croft, president of New York City Park Advocates, measured their temperature at more than 127 degrees, and parent Roula Fokas observed, “You can fry an egg on them." In July 2010, The New York Post reported the domes would be replaced with new equipment which, presumably, could be touched by anyone, at any time of year.
The John Hancock Tower is a 60-story skyscraper in Boston that was designed by the I.M. Pei & Partners architectural firm and unveiled in 1976. Its striking, minimalist appearance won it accolades from the architectural community, but it was famously plagued with problems.
One major issue the building encountered concerned its windows: They were falling out and crashing to the pavement hundreds of feet below. In the 1992 book "Why Buildings Fall Down," authors Matthys Levy and Mario Salvadori explained that this was due to unanticipated, repeated thermal stresses to the panels. Ultimately, all 10,000 windows would be replaced at a cost of $5 million.
The John Hancock Tower encountered one other major problem. Skyscrapers are meant to sway in order to absorb strong gusts of wind, though the sway is normally not felt by the building’s residents. The John Hancock Tower, however, swayed so dramatically that it gave the occupants of its upper floors motion sickness. The problem was finally solved by Cambridge engineer William LeMessurier.
When researching hotels for an upcoming trip, many potential guests hope to find certain amenities, such as a mini-bar, a gym, or close proximity to sightseeing. However, the Vdara Hotel & Spa in Las Vegas offers a unique accoutrement that neither its guests nor its architect anticipated—a death ray.
The hotel opened in December 2009 and featured a unique, curved structure. However, its design collected solar rays and beamed them to the hotel swimming pool area. Guests sunning themselves nearby were regularly singed, such as Bill Pintas, who claimed that the hotel’s impromptu death ray had burned his hair and melted the plastic bag he had with him.
The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was a suspension bridge that connected the port city of Tacoma, Wash., with the Kitsap Peninsula. It was the third-longest suspension bridge in the world when it opened to the public on July 1, 1940, but it closed four months later after a spectacular collapse.
The cause of the collapse was inadequate girders that were used to keep construction costs low. They failed to keep the bridge deck in place, allowing it to sway violently whenever a strong enough wind blew.
This situation was already noticeable to construction workers, who nicknamed it “Galloping Gertie.” The name stuck when the general public crossed the bridge and noticed its similarity to a bucking bronco. It finally collapsed on Nov. 7, 1940, under the stress of a 40 mile-per-hour wind.
The Lotus Riverside is a residential apartment complex in Shanghai consisting of eleven 13-story buildings. On the morning of June 27, 2009, one of them toppled over, just barely missing an adjacent building. Had it not missed, it might have caused one toppled building to topple into the next, creating a horrifying domino effect that, thankfully, did not come to pass.
The cause of the collapse was attributed to excavation that was in progress to create an underground garage. The earth removed from beneath the building was dumped into a landfill near a creek, and its weight caused the river bank to collapse. Water from the creek then seeped into the ground, turning the building’s foundation into mud.
The Ray and Maria Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was designed by award-winning architect Frank Gehry. It opened in 2004 and houses the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, and the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems. It was hailed for its logic-defying angles and walls that challenged the laws of physics.
Three years after it opened, MIT filed a negligence suit against Gehry, claiming design flaws in the $300 million building had caused major structural problems. Drainage issues had caused cracks in the walls. Icicle daggers hung pendulously from the roof like deadly sash weights. Mold grew on the building’s brick exterior.
The school paid more than $1.5 million for repairs. A spokesman for the construction company, Skanska USA Building, claimed the company had tried to warn Gehry of problems with the design on numerous occasions, and had made repeated requests to use more suitable material. "We were told to proceed with the original design," the spokesman said. "It was difficult to make the original design work."
The University of Massachusetts Amherst is home to three distinguished libraries, which include the Music Reserve Lab and the Science and Engineering Library. However, the best known is the W.E.B. Du Bois Library, a 26-story structure that is the tallest library in the U.S.
Within two months of its opening, the building began shedding brick chips, a phenomenon known as spalling. There are various urban legends that persist about its causes, the most popular of which is that the architect who designed the building failed to take into account the weight of the books to be housed inside it.
While no official cause of the spalling was given, 60,000 books had to be moved out of the building. It was later discovered the building was sinking into the pond-saturated ground on which it was built. However, YouMass, a helpful guide to life on the UMass Amherst campus, says this claim is overblown and describes the degree to which the building is sinking as “not so much.”
Kemper Arena is an indoor stadium in Kansas City, Mo., that opened in 1974. It had been the site of the 1976 Republican National Convention and it won raves for its unique design. Rather than employ view-obstructing columns, the roof was suspended from trusses on its exterior.
On June 4, 1979, the roof collapsed when a heavy storm battered the city. Fortunately, it wasn’t being used at the time, so there were no injuries or fatalities, but it was a shock to the city nonetheless.
The roof had been designed to release rainwater slowly, in order to avoid flooding the nearby West Bottoms area. This caused rainwater to collect on top and pool anywhere the roof sagged, creating excess weight. Worse yet, the roof was suspended from hangers, and the strength of their bolts had been miscalculated. Once a single bolt gave way, many of the neighboring ones followed suit, ultimately leading to the roof’s collapse.
The CNA Center is a high-rise building in Chicago that opened in 1972. The 44-story building was designed by the firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White. It’s painted bright red, making it impossible not to notice.
In 1999, a large piece of a window came loose from the 29th floor of the building and plunged to the ground, causing one fatality. The culprit was thermal expansion, and after an $18 million settlement every one of the building’s windows was replaced. Each window is still checked on a monthly basis to this day.