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.


About the author

Sammy is a writer, designer, and ice cream maker based in New York. He once lived in China before being an editor at Architizer.