Winston Churchill once said “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.” Wise words as ever from a man who was probably drunk at the time. In the world of 20th-century architecture, however, the forces that shape our buildings can more often be weird design fads or a desire to be eye-catching at any cost. This leads, in many cases, to buildings that shape us by crushing us, dropping shards of glass on us, or even blasting us with the occasional heat ray.
What follows are ten examples of architecture that may have been eye-catching or trendy when they initially designed and built, but later failed to meet expectations either commercially or not-collapsing-ly.
WALT DISNEY CONCERT HALL, LOS ANGELES
The combination of the now-classic “glass monolith” style of skyscraper building and the swooping curves popularized by recent architects has culminated in a style of architecture that blends the technological with the organic to create focused beams of murderous heat.
Case in point: Frank Gehry’s critically acclaimed design for the new Walt Disney Concert Hall, clad in stainless steel brushed to a matte finish with the notable exception of the Founders Room and Children’s Amphitheater.
These two sections of the exterior were polished to an almost mirror-like finish that had the unfortunate side effect of concentrating reflected sunlight into traffic (blinding drivers), onto the sidewalk (creating hot spots of over 140 degrees Fahrenheit), and at the neighboring condominiums, the residents of which finally threatened legal action over their skyrocketing air-conditioning costs. Gehry Partners eventually sanded down the offending panels enough to prevent their use as directed energy weapons.
EMP MUSEUM, SEATTLE
In designing the Experience Music Project for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Frank Gehry looked to the design of classic instruments like grand pianos and Fender Stratocasters. So, it’s anyone’s guess how the building ended up looking like a cross between a sea cucumber and a butt plug.
Variously nicknamed “the Blob” or “the Hemorrhoids,” the Experience Music Project soon discovered they couldn’t pay the bills with just a bunch of Jimi Hendrix memorabilia and added on a science fiction wing, officially becoming the unwieldy “Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame” before just reverting to “EMP Museum.”
STANDARD OIL/AMOCO BUILDING, CHICAGO
Completed in 1974, the Amoco Building was the world’s tallest marble-clad building, surfaced with 43,000 slabs of lightweight Italian marble. Of course, “lightweight” is a pretty relative term, as the residents of the neighboring Prudential Center would argue after a 350-pound chunk of marble smashed through their roof during the skyscraper’s construction.
Additional precautions were taken to make sure the marble stayed where it was supposed to, but a 1985 inspection revealed that the slabs were still cracking and bowing under the strain. Finally, from 1990 to 1992, the entire building was refaced with white granite at a cost believed to be some $80 million, considerably more than half the original construction price and quite possibly one of the reasons why you don’t see many Amoco stations any more.
The building itself is currently named Aon Center after its new owners, while the crumbled cladding was either used for landscaping at other Amoco facilities or donated to anyone who seemed like they needed several thousand tons of Italian marble.
JOHN HANCOCK TOWER, BOSTON
Not to be confused with Chicago’s John Hancock Center, Boston’s eye-catching blue-glass skyscraper is known officially as Hancock Place and is occasionally referred to as “The Hancock” by people looking to score a cheap laugh. During its long and problematic construction, however, the tower was popularly known as the “Plywood Palace."
A series of glass shatterings led to the sobering conclusion that all the existing panes of glass had to be replaced with stronger stuff, and while that was being made the missing panes were replaced with big slabs of plywood that didn’t do much for the original design’s minimalist façade.
To add insult to injury, after the tower was opened the residents of the upper floor began complaining of motion sickness. While all modern skyscrapers are designed to allow a little sway, the Hancock was wobbling all over the place, and while the installation of a mass damper cut down on most of the detectable movement, a 1995 study revealed that the building was still dangerously susceptible to high winds, necessitating a $5 million bracing project.
CITIGROUP CENTER, NEW YORK CITY
Engineers and architects for Citigroup had a unique challenge when planning their new skyscraper: St. Peter’s Lutheran Church was inconveniently located on the northwest corner of the build site. While the church fathers would allow them the use of the space, they required that the church be demolished and rebuilt in such a way that the skyscraper itself didn’t touch it, adjoin it, or send supporting columns through it.
Engineer William LeMessurier solved the problem (or so he thought) by setting giant columns at the midpoint of each wall, allowing the corner of Citigroup’s skyscraper to cantilever out over the Lutheran’s tiny church in a helpful reminder of which of the two organizations ultimately wielded more power in the material realm.
Unfortunately, Citigroup skimped on LeMessurier’s design requirements and substituted cheap bolted joints for welded ones in the load-bearing systems he had designed to allow the skyscraper to withstand high winds (a decision that the engineer was only notified of at the beginning of 1978’s hurricane season).
What could have been at least a scandal and at worst a disaster was muffled by Citigroup and LeMessurier’s subterfuge and a local press strike, allowing secret crews of welders to reinforce the columns with steel slabs in the middle of the night.
Although Hurricane Ella nearly interrupted the operation, it went off so quickly and quietly that the truth was only made known to the public in 1995 after a New Yorker investigative report.
FALLINGWATER, MILL RUN, PENNSYLVANIA
Frank Lloyd Wright is considered to be one of America’s greatest and most original architects, if not one of the country’s premier artists overall. So, it was more than a little bit embarrassing when it became known that one of his most famous pieces was in real danger of collapsing and falling off a cliff.
Fallingwater, Wright’s design for Pittsburgh mogul Edgar Kaufmann, was commissioned after the architect not-so-quietly confided in Kaufmann’s son that his distinguished parents’ French-style estate was undeserving of their glory. Placed at the top of a waterfall on the family’s Bear Run property, Fallingwater immediately developed mold and humidity problems so bad that the disgruntled Kaufmann soon nicknamed the house “Rising Mildew.”
Worse, the bold cantilevered concrete structures that defined Wright’s Prairie School style in general, and Fallingwater in particular were not up to the demands that the building was placing on them, beginning to deform even before the rest of the home was complete.
In 1995, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy finally took a hard look at Fallingwater and found that immediate repair and reinforcement was called for, and the renowned structure found itself covered in an embarrassing assortment of wood and metal scaffolds as engineers attempted to find a way to replace the flawed concrete without destroying the house altogether.
Happily, with the use of post-tensioned blocks and steel cabling, the integrity of the building was restored in 2002 without having to make any changes to the house’s appearance.
PITTWATER HIGH SCHOOL, SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA
Italian architect Dante Bini developed his unique low-cost quick-built concrete domes in the mid sixties, the absolute perfect time to invent any sort of dome-based building technology, and around 1600 “Binishells” were successfully erected in other twenty countries.
The construction process seemed deceptively simple: inflate a membrane covered in wet cement and braced with rebar to the desired shape and pressure, wait for it to dry, remove the balloony part and you’re all set.
Unfortunately, if builders didn’t follow Bini’s procedures with great care, the membrane could inflate incorrectly, leading to a dome that seemed structurally sound but was actually a fragile bubble waiting to break.
This was exactly what happened in two Australian high schools that had embraced the futuristic construction process. Fairvale, where the dome collapsed during construction, and Pittwater, where a ten-year-old assembly hall imploded after a hundred students had, uh, assembled.
Thankfully, there was only one injury, and the lessons learned from the collapse were implemented in the form of a special stress monitor used in all subsequent Australian Binishells, along with other government-mandated Australia-specific safety measures such as dingo sensors and knife measurers.
CHARLES DE GAULLE TERMINAL 2E, PARIS, FRANCE
Named after the immortal god-king of all French people everywhere, Charles de Gaulle International is one of the busiest airports in the world, although only second busiest in Europe compared to Heathrow (in passenger operations) or Frankfurt (in freight) which you can be sure annoys its owners enormously.
CDG sought to improve its profile in 2004 with the opening of Terminal 2E, an airy, soaring space designed by legendary airport architect Paul Andreu (who was already responsible for much of the rest of Charles de Gaulle as well as the smaller airport at Orly).
Incredibly, after only a few months of operation a span of the terminal collapsed, killing four. A post-mortem investigation revealed that the design relied upon razor-thin safety margins and a construction procedure that had to go off flawlessly.
Andreu blamed the construction company for failing to mix and prepare the concrete properly, but his case wasn’t helped by the fact that a few months after the Terminal 2E disaster, one of his terminals at Dubai International Airport collapsed during the construction process.
Despite the loss of life and significant costs of demolishing and rebuilding the terminal, Andreu remains a sought-after architect, serving as dean emeritus of the Architecture Department at Zhejiang University and designing a cultural center in Montreal’s new entertainment district.
RONAN POINT APARTMENTS, LONDON, ENGLAND
Hip Sixties-era British architecture was all about the “groovy” trend of New Brutalist architecture, where massive poured concrete structures were assembled panel-by-panel and then filled up with poor people.
This chunky gray offshoot of Modernism was cheaper and more efficient than traditional architecture and possessed its own distinctive sort of style, but often builders of cheap housing would cut corners in the designs, resulting in concrete monoliths that concealed fatal weaknesses.
Take Ronan Point, a 22-story tower assembled out of prefabricated concrete panels, which just a few months after opening suffered a gas explosion in a southeastern corner unit on the 18th floor. This was apparently no fault of the builders, but what happened next sparked major changes in British building regulation.
The explosion having destroyed key load-bearing walls, the four units above collapsed onto the hollow space, creating a chain reaction that progressively destroyed all of the apartments on the southeastern corner of the building.
Emergency inspections led to the reinforcement of many existing London tower blocks, but the damage to the reputation of the concrete apartment tower was irreversible, and many were knocked down in the following decades to be replaced with low-rise garden-style apartments.
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When people think of planned communities, they typically think of stuffy little subdivisions bordering golf courses with names like Foxwood Chapel Estates or Brookshire Glen Bluff Pines Glen Brook, filled with identical McMansions around manicured cul-de-sacs.
As a matter of fact, some of the world’s largest and most important cities were laid out on strict plans and blueprints dictated by leading urban planning theorists. Chief among these are national capitals like Myanmar’s Naypyidaw, Brazil’s Brasilia, and America’s very own Washington DC, all of which were designed in part as a way of illustrating their home country’s technological aspirations, design prowess, and core values.
Of course, since urban planning is just as vulnerable to faddishness and fashion as its little brother architecture (if not more so), this meant that certain dubious planning decisions were hardwired into these cities forever.
DC’s two-hundred-year-old grid-and-spoke traffic system might have worked well for horses but can be maddeningly unpleasant to fight through in a car, particularly if you take the wrong turn off one of the multi-faceted traffic circles.
On the other hand, Brasilia was developed at the height of the automotive age and was originally planned without traffic lights or sidewalks, a design decision that was quickly countermanded after pedestrian deaths skyrocketed.
Of course, both of these cities were laid down in the hopes that their unique designs would benefit their citizens (Brasilia was even constructed to look like an airplane from above—how fun!), while Naypyidaw may be the exact opposite.
Myanmar’s military leaders claim that the capital was moved inland to be safe from foreign attackers, but the vast, empty city lacks a city center or any other plausible space for public demonstration while residential, commercial, government, and military buildings are confined to rigidly defined “zones.”
By creating a sterile, regimented capital far from the messy bustle of Rangoon, the rulers of Myanmar may have failed at creating a pleasant place to stay or even visit but may have succeeded in establishing a revolution-proof citadel.