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5 Worst Architectural Failures

Written by Kevin Jennings

For as long humans have been humaning, we have strived to build bigger and more impressive structures. From the Pyramids at Giza to the Great Wall of China, there are countless incredible feats of architectural design and human ingenuity around the world. Architecture is a form of art, focused on aesthetics above all else. It is the job of architectural engineers to ensure that the visual dreams of the architect can become a practical reality. But every once in a while, an engineer slips through the cracks who didn’t pay quite enough attention in physics class. Today we’ll be looking at some of the greatest architectural failures that were completely avoidable.

John Hancock Tower


            Famous architect Henry Cobb of I.M. Pei & Partners designed the John Hancock Tower in Boston. Construction began on the 62 story skyscraper in 1968, and was completed in 1975. It is the tallest building not only in Boston, but in all of New England. The tower was designed to have a beautiful, minimalist feel for which it received much praise from the design community. All 62 stories of the 790 foot (240 meter) building features massive, floor to ceiling glass windows. The glass was highly reflective and tinted blue, making the completely glass facades blend almost entirely into the skyline.

            The building was set to open in 1971, but there were a few problems. The most noticeable was that the windows and their frames were perfectly fitted, with absolutely no give. This meant that repeated thermal stress caused the 500 pounds windows to pop off the building frame and crash to the ground. This problem was exacerbated in windy conditions to the point that anytime winds exceeded 45 miles per hour, police would have to close off the surrounding streets to protect cars and pedestrians from the massive, falling deathtraps.

 All of the windows were replaced in 1973 at an estimated cost of $5-7 million dollars. Before the windows were fully replaced, the empty holes in the buildings’ sides were covered with plywood, earning it the name the “Plywood Palace.”

            Luckily, no one died as a result of the design failures of the Hancock Tower, though there were several tummy aches. Skyscrapers are designed to sway in the wind out of necessity. Their extreme heights make them more susceptible to wind, meaning they are bound to sway at least a little bit as a result. As such, buildings have to be designed to be allowed to sway without causing any damage to the structural integrity of the building.

Normally the swaying is of a skyscraper in the wind is imperceptible to occupants, but the Hancock Tower swayed entirely too much. Those on the higher floors complained of motion sickness due to the exaggerated movements of the building. To tackle this problem, two 300 ton weights were attached to either side of the building frame on the 58th floor to limit the amount the building would move as a result of wind, costing an additional $3 million.

As if that wasn’t enough, there was still one more problem to deal with. The Hancock Tower was rectangular, with the wider sides being over 60% longer than the narrow ones. Once the swaying problem was fixed, further research determined that the building was much less stable on the narrow sides, and the right kind of wind could cause the entire structure to topple over. To prevent this, an additional 1,500 tons of diagonal, steel bracing was added to the tower at a price of $5 million.

In total, the repairs to the John Hancock Tower cost as much as $15 million in 1970’s money and required over 7,000 tons of new materials to be completed.

Vdara Hotel and Spa


            There are a lot of hotels in Las Vegas, so they all need that special something to attract customers to their business rather the myriad of other choices. There are a lot of things a hotel can offer to entice guests: slot machines in the lobby, a buffet with cocktail shrimp the size of your head, or even a robot butler that can tell you which direction to face to pray to Mecca. With this constant game of one-upmanship, it was only a matter of time before a hotel added a “death ray” to attract guests.

            The Vdara Hotel and Spa is a tall, curved structure featuring many large windows. The hotel opened in December of 2009, but it wasn’t long before guests realized what the architect of this hotel had actually built: a giant magnifying glass focusing the rays of the sun directly to the pool area. Visitors of the hotel were quick to name this phenomena the Vdara death ray, though hotel staff prefered to refer to it as “glare” or a “hot spot”.

            The curvature of the building creates an area of about 10 feet by 15 feet with temperature increases of approximately 20 degrees, a region that moves across the pool area throughout the day as the location of the sun in the sky changes. In 2010, shortly after the hotel opened, customers complained about the intense heat and severe sunburns the building was causing. One man, Bill Pintas, alleged that the death ray burned his hair and melted a plastic bag he was carrying his newspaper in.

            Tearing down and recreating a less deadly version of the hotel from scratch would be an extremely costly a time consuming venture, but Vdara had a much simpler solution in mind: they installed giant umbrellas in the pool area to shield guests from the harmful effects of the ill-conceived construction.

            While there were many complaints regarding sunburns and uncomfortable temperature, the account of Bill Pintas was the only more serious injury. It may also be worth nothing that Bill works as a personal injury attorney, but we’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about the veracity of his claims.

Tacoma Narrows Bridge


            Originally opened to the public on July 1, 1940, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was the third largest suspension bridge in the world at the time. It was built to connect the city of Tacoma, Washington with the Kitsap Peninsula. It was designed by leading suspension bridge engineer Leon Moisseiff and cost $6.4 million, but it should have cost more.

            From the moment the bridge opened, its impending doom could be seen by anyone. Even under normal, light wind conditions, the bridge would sway and buckle. Workers had nicknamed the bridge “Galloping Gertie”, with some even suffering from motion sickness during the bridge’s construction. Why the bridge went ahead as planned instead of having these problems investigated is anyone’s guess.

            Actually, we don’t need to guess; the answer was money. The issues with the bridge were almost entirely cost cutting measures, primarily the use of cheap girders. Later research showed that the entire design was aerodynamically unstable, but if they weren’t going to pay for proper building materials, they certainly weren’t going to pay just to double check the engineers’ designs. On November 7, 1940, barely 4 months after the bridge opened to the public, the 45 mph winds were too much for the bridge to handle.

            You’ve almost certainly seem the footage before, as it is one of the most famous pieces of old newsreel ever produced. The black and white footage shows the bridge swaying wildly with a single car parked on it before finally collapsing. Fortunately, because the bridge was so visibly temperamental, no human lives were lost. There was plenty of time to evacuate the bridge before it collapsed, and the single car on the cartoonishly contorting bridge was abandoned after it stalled and would not start back up. Sadly, there was a dog, Tubby, in the car who was too frightened to leave and attacked an engineer that tried to remove him.

            Though only one section of the bridge collapsed into the waters below, the entire bridge was damaged beyond repair. It was clear before it even opened that it was a cut-rate piece of shit, so repairing the original bridge rather than building a new one from scratch should never have really been on the table in the first place.

            The replacement bridge opened in October of 1950 and was nicknamed “Sturdy Gertie” by locals for obvious reasons. The new bridge cost nearly $14 million to construct, over double the price of the original bridge, meaning that either a whole lot of corners were cut to keep costs down the first time, or that materials costs raised considerably. Either way, they probably wish they had just paid to get it right the first time before Galloping Gertie collapsed into the water and became a very literal $6 million sunk cost.

Villa Savoye


            Located in the town of Poissey, a suburb of Paris, France, the Villa Savoye was designed by Swiss architect Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier was already a famous architect and one of the leaders in modernist design. When The Savoye family approached him to design a house for them on a vacant plot of grass in an otherwise wooded area, he jumped at the chance. This home was to be the prime example of his “Five Points”, his new architectural aesthetic philosophy. His points including things like an open floor plan with no load bearing walls, allowing walls to only be placed where aesthetically necessary, and a functional roof that could be used as a garden or terrace, “reclaiming for Nature the land occupied by the building.”

            The Villa was constructed from 1928 through 1931, and it is a prime example of form over function. It was a beautiful work of art, and Le Corbusier was not going to compromise his vision for anything, not even the most vital changes for structural integrity.

            When you look at a house, you’re probably so used to the existence of window sills, gutters, and drainage pipes that you don’t even notice them. Le Corbusier felt differently, and under no circumstances we he going to allow such eye sores on his work of art, no matter how important they were for proper drainage.

            Needless to say, this was a giant mistake that a professional architect should have known better than to ever make. The lack of drainage resulted in a leaky roof. Rainwater overflowing from the roof also destroyed the pristine, white sides of the house, staining and eroding the colour. Because his entire goal was for aesthetics and beauty, the entire building became riddled with cracks as the materials had not been chosen based on their structural durability.

            Artists may not like to compromise with their art, but this is one instance where certainly the smallest of concessions could have been made so that Le Corbusier’s work would have endured for more than a few years. The house was abandoned by its owners and expropriated by the town of Poissy for use as a youth center. The town later planned to demolish the villa so they could build a school on the property, but protests from architects including Le Corbusier prevented the demolition. In 1965 the Villa Savoye became the first modernist building to be added to the French register of historical landmarks, though it has since been thoroughly renovated, despite Le Corbusier’s disapproval.

            No one can dispute Le Corbusier’s designs for the Villa Savoye as an important piece of art and an influential modernist design. But as an actual, physical structure that was designed for people to live inside? In that department, it left more than a little bit to be desired. The Savoye’s should just be grateful that Le Corbusier was still focused on modern design, as his subsequent designs were heavily influenced by Surrealism.

Cloud Skyscraper


            Our final entry today is a little different. This structure managed to be an architectural disaster without ever even being built. The dream was simple: to build two luxury residential towers, one 60 stories tall and the other 54 stories tall right next to each other. They would be part of Yongsan Dreamhub, also known as the Yongsan International Business District in Seoul, South Korea. The Yongsan District is a relatively large area of Seoul that is not considered to be significantly developed, so this was the perfect location for the Yongsan Dreamhub project. The Cloud Skyscraper was only two of the multiple buildings that were intended to be built in this development.  

The two buildings were designed to be connected by what looked like a pixilated cloud. At least, in the minds of Dutch architecture firm MVRDV who were responsible for the design it looked like a pixilated cloud. To any American that saw the design, they immediately gasped in horror as what they saw was a recreation of the World Trade Center burning to the ground on 9/11. The backlash was immediate, and MVRDV issued an apology and scrapped the design.

Skyscrapers are expensive, so how much was this project going to cost, anyway? On average, a large skyscraper costs from $500 million to $1.5 billion to construct. The price for the Yongsan Dreamhub? An estimated 28-31 trillion won, or $22.6-$27 billion dollars.  To be fair it was going to be multiple skyscrapers, but that is an astronomical price tag.

Despite this, South Korea was on board in a big way. The main developer was Korail, the Korean railway company, as they owned much of the unused land. About 29 corporations as well as the South Korean government were all involved in the project.

The plan for Yongsan was originally proposed in 2006, but the Great Recession delayed progress. The real estate market became less appealing, and investors such as Samsung and Lotte Tours pulled out. Finally, in 2013, the entire project was canceled with nothing being built. That is a lot of investor money wasted, and after years of spending money with nothing to show for it, Korail did not have the finances to cover their debts. Despite their terrible reputation and being on the verge of bankruptcy, the company managed to turn things around in the subsequent years thanks to new leadership within the company.

However, this was about more than just money. Korail owned some of the unused land in Yongsan that was to be used for Dreamhub, but not all of it. But because the South Korean government was involved, they had the power to evict people from their homes to make room for the construction that would never happen. Not only were people rendered homeless for a ridiculous gentrification project, an accidental fire while police carried out a forced eviction resulted in the death of six area residents, all for the crime of not wanting their homes taken away by the government.

Yongsan Dreamhub may be one of the biggest architecture failures ever. Not only did it include skyscrapers so offensive they were immediately abandoned as soon as the public saw the designs, but it resulted in corporate bankruptcy of investors, and the forced homelessness and even death of innocent civilians. All for an overly ambitious project that never even happened.

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