Failure by Design

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

Failure by Design

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.

Failure by Design

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.

Failure by Design

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

Failure by Design

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

Failure by Design

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

Failure by Design

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.

Failure by Design

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.

Failure by Design

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.

Failure by Design

Yup, what they said.

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.

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.

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  • VictorianShuter

    I realize you can't include every big design failure, but I'm a bit baffled as to why the Hyatt Regency Kansas City tragedy of 1981 wasn't included.

  • Robert Sawyer

    That's not including Frank Gehry's blunder on the Walt Disney Concert Hall who's reflection burned all of the nearby office towers causing an explosion in one and fires in others. Dah. Nice work trash man. 

  • sgnj77

    Nicely presented. Horribly written. Sammy needs to go back to fifth grade English class. "He once lived in China before being an editor at Architizer." His design is nice. Let's assume his ice cream is delicious. He needs 'remedial writering.'

  • rktrixy

    I would say that the lesson from #2 is:  Just because a structure has endured for quite some time, doesn't mean it won't be affected by the next disaster.  With every building or public works comes the less glamorous task of maintenance and evaluation based on other lessons learned.  For instance, had the lighthouse made it into the 20th century, a plan might have been made to add new reinforcing or put the structure on an isolated base.  Expensive?  Yes.  But monuments are worth protecting. 

    I like this list of projects. I think you could take the same approach to the history of medicine, or law, or the sciences. 

  • ramubay

    #3 Lesson Learned:  When life gives you lemons make lemonade.  The Leaning Tower is now such a key element of tourism -- certainly one of the most famous and iconic buildings in the world -- that it was determined that any repairs to the structure should not prevent it from leaning.  Continuing to lean the campanile was stabilized and brought back to its original 1838 lean - perhaps the only architectural restoration to purposely retain its primary defect.  If it were not for this defect the building would not be as beloved as it is today.  So history's biggest design failure?  No, not at all.  History's biggest unintentional design success.

  • e11world

    I think #2 is one that you can leave out of this. It's not really a design failure when an earth quake hits any building. That's a very poor history lesson.

  • e11world

    I think #2 is one that you can leave out of this. It's not really a design failure when an earth quake hits any building. That's a very poor history lesson.

  • alanomaly

    Building a 42-story building using 280-BC technology that lasts nearly 1,500 years? That's a massive design success.

  • Avialecs

    What the..? Not a design failure? Poor history lesson?
    Please explain more why this ain't a design failure and also what does history has to do with this.On the other hand, please stick with soccer and dancing. You're giving very poor engineering lessons.