3 Biggest Architectural Mishaps in History

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For those wondering why they’re seeing fewer McMansions and poorly designed buildings, the answer is simple. In the United States, many states have strongly encouraged, if not made it mandatory, to work with licensed general contractors at all times.

These specialists can take care of every requirement in each stage of the project, from pre-planning to post-construction. Most of all, they prevent clients from receiving shoddy work, which is not only a waste of money but also extremely dangerous.

To stress the point above, learn from the biggest — and unfortunately tragic — architectural blunders that have happened around the globe.

1. Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

In 1911, in the middle of the bustling borough of Manhattan, New York was Asch Building, a multiple-story commercial establishment that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in its eighth to tenth floors. Here, scores of men and women, of different ages but mostly European immigrants, worked for long hours producing women’s blouses.

On March 25, a fire erupted on the eighth floor, which many now blamed on a discarded cigarette butt thrown into a pile of trash of garment scraps. Although the management prohibited smoking, some learned to sneak in sticks by hiding them in their coats.

The fire eventually spread to the upper two floors, trapping the workers. But what made their death almost certain was a combination of unethical business practices and flimsy building designs.

The employees couldn’t go out because the doors and fire exits were actually locked to prevent theft and allow closer scrutiny of workers before they left their jobs. Some eventually climbed to the Green Street Stairway toward the roof, but this structure eventually gave in.

Moreover, the building, which contained other offices and businesses, featured only one exterior fire escape after the city allowed its construction instead of a third staircase. The heat caused the already weak structure to give way as people crowded the area.

Lastly, although the city already had fire hydrants and established firefighting departments, the ladder that could have helped douse the fire fast couldn’t reach the affected floors—it was good only up to the sixth floor.

The incident lasted for only 18 minutes. But within this period, over 140 people died, many of whom lost their lives after jumping off the building.

fire extinguisher

2. Sampoong Department Store Collapse

The collapse of the Sampoong Department Store in the heart of Seoul in 1995 is one of the biggest peacetime disasters in world history. It killed over 500 people and injured almost 1,000 individuals. However, it was also a tragic event that would not have happened if everyone had paid attention to the building’s structure.

The department store was one of the products of the commercial construction boom in South Korea brought by the 1988 Olympics. Local contractors (international ones weren’t allowed to participate then) and developers scrambled to complete projects on time and build some more.

A year before the Olympics, the Sampoong Group converted a landfill into, initially, a residential building. But it seemed a commercial one, particularly a department store, sounded more lucrative. This change also meant that the original building plan needed modifications, which didn’t suit the needs of the commercial structure.

For one, they removed more support columns to give way to escalators. The department store didn’t have any crossbeams, so the load was unequal across the floors. Big pieces of equipment, such as air-conditioning units, were also on the roof.

Most of all, the developer insisted on adding one more floor (the fifth) despite the protests of its contractor (which it later fired) and putting restaurants. This implied that foot traffic was actually high on the uppermost part of the building.

It didn’t take long before signs of structural failure appeared. Within five years, big cracks were already noticeable. By the middle of the year of the accident, these cracks increased in size and number. So, on the morning of June 29, the building couldn’t hold on any longer and collapsed.

3. Leaning Tower of Pisa

One of the most-visited attractions in Italy is the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Contrary to what many tourists think, though, this isn’t an architectural marvel. Instead, it’s one of the earliest examples of poor building design.

The construction of the bell tower began in 1173, and it should have been the final structure of a cathedral complex. In the initial design, the primary material would be marble, and the height would be about 56 meters.

It would also be eight stories. However, while the engineers were still on the construction of the third level, the tower already started leaning because of the uneven foundations attached to soft ground. This problem went on throughout the construction of the tower.

Fortunately, it had some saving graces. One, the war broke out, which meant construction ceased temporarily. Some believed this allowed the foundation to settle and strengthen the base eventually. Moreover, the building kept its center of gravity at the base, so it didn’t topple over even if it leaned.

Nevertheless, the leaning cost the construction process to lengthen. In more recent times, heavy bells in the tower had to be removed to avoid worsening the problem.

No project is perfect, but working with contractors ensures the building doesn’t meet the same fate or story as some of the biggest architectural fails in history.

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