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Infographic: 8 Of History's Biggest Design Failures

In graphic detail, this new timeline shows just who’s making a mistake in thinking those who design buildings can do no wrong.

  • <p>The history of architecture is riddled with design disasters, but we’ve forgotten many of them.</p>
  • <p>A new infographic wants to remind us of some of the most catastrophic building decisions through the ages, so that we won’t repeat their mistakes.</p>
  • <p>Produced by the NewSchool of Architecture and Design, the graphic spells out just went wrong with iconic architectural projects ancient and modern, and, most importantly, what we’ve learned from them.</p>
  • <p>The chart spans a history of 2,000 years, beginning with the Fidenae amphitheater (destroyed AD 27) and the storied Alexandria lighthouse (1303).</p>
  • <p>From there, things progress at lightspeed to more contemporary times, highlighting three key building disasters of the 20th century.</p>
  • <p>Along with St. Francis Dam (1928), the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940 represent the greatest infrastructural failures of the interwar period.</p>
  • <p>The John Hancock Tower didn’t fall, but when its upper-story windows began crashing to the ground in 1976, designers knew they had a problem.</p>
  • <p>The opening of the Vdara Hotel and Spa in Las Vegas in 2009 welcomed poolside guests with searing sunburns. The convex shape of the hotel focused the intense desert rays onto the water below.</p>
  • <p>The same year, a newly completed housing development outside of Shanghai began experiencing structural problems. The issue? A nearby riverbank shifted when an adjacent underground parking garage displaced tons of dirt.</p>
  • <p>Yup, what they said.</p>
  • 01 /10
    | Failure by Design

    The history of architecture is riddled with design disasters, but we’ve forgotten many of them.

  • 02 /10

    A new infographic wants to remind us of some of the most catastrophic building decisions through the ages, so that we won’t repeat their mistakes.

  • 03 /10

    Produced by the NewSchool of Architecture and Design, the graphic spells out just went wrong with iconic architectural projects ancient and modern, and, most importantly, what we’ve learned from them.

  • 04 /10

    The chart spans a history of 2,000 years, beginning with the Fidenae amphitheater (destroyed AD 27) and the storied Alexandria lighthouse (1303).

  • 05 /10

    From there, things progress at lightspeed to more contemporary times, highlighting three key building disasters of the 20th century.

  • 06 /10

    Along with St. Francis Dam (1928), the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940 represent the greatest infrastructural failures of the interwar period.

  • 07 /10

    The John Hancock Tower didn’t fall, but when its upper-story windows began crashing to the ground in 1976, designers knew they had a problem.

  • 08 /10

    The opening of the Vdara Hotel and Spa in Las Vegas in 2009 welcomed poolside guests with searing sunburns. The convex shape of the hotel focused the intense desert rays onto the water below.

  • 09 /10

    The same year, a newly completed housing development outside of Shanghai began experiencing structural problems. The issue? A nearby riverbank shifted when an adjacent underground parking garage displaced tons of dirt.

  • 10 /10

    Yup, what they said.

Frank Lloyd Wright famously observed that "A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines." And that was long before the Internet stripped strategically placed foliage from its already limited power to cover tracks. Wright’s black witticism aside, an architect’s mistakes could prove far more consequential than matters of landscaping. After all, if a building fails and collapses, that can cost lives.

Ideally though (as long as you’re not the architect), such mistakes can be thought of as "learning experiences." Or that’s how the NewSchool of Architecture and Design looks at the issue. Their "Failure by Design" infographic charts major architectural blunders through the ages and extracts the lessons each one taught the architects—or more accurately, the builders.

The narrative begins in AD 27 with the collapse of the Fidenae Amphitheater wood substructure, brought on by—what else?—overpacked crowds rallying for gladiatorial events. What was the great paradigm-shifting takeaway here? "Account for the weight the structure will hold." Pretty basic, but crucial, and something that quite literally influenced the design of every structure that came after it.

Subsequent examples, including the Lighthouse of Alexandria and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, carry on in a similar vein, often highlighting what seems painfully obvious. (In the case of the latter: "Making and building on a solid foundation is vital.") This is a fun roundup, but certainly not to be used for instructional purposes.

From there, 1173, the graphic leaps over hundreds of years, finally picking back up again in the first half of the 20th century. The period is marked by the catastrophic collapse of the St. Francis Dam (1928) and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (1940). The failure of both helped standardize routine inspections for public infrastructure and forced designers to take into account shifting environmental conditions that could exert influence on a structure at any time.

The final two case studies in the timeline are the most outrageous. They perfectly convey how human ingenuity is often undone by hubris and overlooked details. Just try not to think about the very real damages on life and property.