#1: The historical fail

The oldest example of a verifiable architectural fail is arguably the most famous one: the Leaning Tower of Pisa. When construction on the freestanding bell tower for the city’s cathedral started in 1173, the structural flaws of the underlying ground – softer on one side of the foundation – were only discovered by the time construction had already reached the second level and the tower started to sink. When building finally finished some two-hundred years later (politics!), the tower stood some 180 ft. tall, well, slightly askew, with a “leaning” difference of roughly 12 ft. at a 4° angle.

What to do? According to the proverb, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!”, the tower has become the city’s prime tourist attraction.

One of history’s first architectural epic fails: Leaning Tower of Pisa © mediachris / photocase.com
One of history’s first architectural epic fails: Leaning Tower of Pisa © mediachris / photocase.com

#2: The swaying fail

When architect Henry Cobb designed Hancock Place in Boston (conceptualized in 1968), his monolithic glass-steel-structure was considered the cutting edge of minimalist skyscraper design and won him an award and accolades from his peers. Unfortunately, Cobb had failed to take the Boston Bay Area’s strong winds into account, which pushed against the finished 790-ft. structure with great force, shaking loose the odd window pane and showering passers-by below with debris. So, whenever the winds picked up, the police was forced to cordon off the surrounding area until all of the 10,000 panes had been replaced. What’s more, the building itself would start to sway so much that people on the upper floors suffered from massive motion sickness.

What to do? Some of the window panes were saved and used by local artist Sydney Hutter to create sculptures and lamps. And the building’s particular and peculiar ‘skyscraper seasickness’ might have inspired director Terry Gilliam’s “The Crimson Permanent Assurance” where he turned an entire insurance company HQ into a pirate ‘ship’ for Monty Python.

John Hancock Tower: The building has now been stabilized, but shortly after construction, people on the top floors often got "seasick" from the constant swaying. © www.thejohnhancocktower.com
John Hancock Tower: The building has now been stabilized, but shortly after construction, people on the top floors often got “seasick” from the constant swaying. © www.thejohnhancocktower.com

#3: The scorching fail

Architect Rafeal Viñoly has not one, but two epic fails on his hands – both suffering from similar problems with optics. After opening in late 2009, the Las Vegas Vdara Hotel & Spa first reported problems the following summer when the so-called “Vdara death ray” hit the hotel’s pool deck full-force. Because of its concave design and reflective exterior, the structure itself turned into a lens, focusing the sun’s intense heat on specific spots around the pool, even burning some smaller objects in its path, like bags or coffee cups.

Undeterred by this experience, Mr. Viñoly designed another reflective marvel for London’s financial district, scheduled for completion in 2014. Just like the Vdara hotel, however, the so-called “Walkie Talkie” focuses and reflects sunbeams onto the street below. Here, the newly nicknamed “Walkie Scorchie” does not incinerate pool-side loungers, but threatens to melt parked cars and bikes with its 100° C rays – it could even blind unsuspecting pedestrians.

What to do? The architect proposes to use foliage, screens, or non-reflective film on the windows to counteract the mirror effect. Meanwhile, tongue-in-cheek activists have used the rays to cook their own food on the street. And what about performance art with combustibles?

The Vdara Hotel & Spa in Las Vegas serves as a focal lens for sunny rays and heats up the pool deck. © Las Vegas citycenter
The Vdara Hotel & Spa in Las Vegas serves as a focal lens for sunny rays and heats up the pool deck. © Las Vegas citycenter

#4: The gusting fail

Not so much a focused and localized fail, but a general skyscraper effect: Tall buildings redirect gusting winds, which tend to be much more prominent and severe at higher altitudes. When hit straight on by gusts and winds, the buildings’ facades divert and angle these winds downward – to the detriment of people below. The so-called wind tunnel effect creates unique microclimates at the foot of such buildings and, when the structure is surrounded by other high-rises, can even channel the wind into urban canyons (see New York City on a windy day). For a tangible example, take the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Green Building with its open ground floor and two lobbies. When winds were strong, the force of the air rushing through the open-plan design was so great that many people trying to enter the building could not even reach the hinged doors – or if they did, few managed to open them against the wind’s relentless onslaught. To ensure safe(r) passage, for a couple of years the university used plywood to barricade one side of the building and thus block the winds.

What to do? As a center of science and learning, the university decided to tackle this problem in-house: at its own wind tunnel lab. Why not turn it into a test case for budding engineers, right? Their solution was to replace the hinged doors with revolving versions and to create enclosures that would divert the strongest gusts. In today’s climate, this might even prove a great opportunity for alternative energy production – think wind park in the lobby …

Text: Lars Schmeink
Header Image:
The building at 20 Fenchurch Street, London, has been nicknamed “Walkie Scorchie” – sunbeams reflected off the facade heat the street below to 100° Celsius. © 20 Fenchurch