It seems as if every industry has its own history of notorious disasters that inspire jokes for years afterward, whether you’re talking about costly films that flopped at the box office, sports teams that lost spectacularly, businesses that went under due to catastrophic misjudgment, political campaigns that alienated voters, or some other kind of embarrassing public failure. The engineering sector is no exception to this tendency. There are a handful of particularly notable building design blunders that have achieved legendary status, to the extent that they have become infamous even among those who ordinarily take little interest in engineering matters. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
The John Hancock Tower (Boston, MA)
The tallest building in all of New England, the 62-story John Hancock Tower is today considered one of the architectural wonders of the Boston area. Upon the building’s completion in 1977, the legendary I. M. Pei & Partners were formally recognized for their design efforts with a National Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects. But there was a time during its long construction period in the ‘70s when the John Hancock Tower was practically a byword for poor judgment. The problems surfaced in January 1973, when dozens of huge glass panes—each weighing about 500 pounds—came loose and smashed to bits on the pavement below. Luckily, no one was injured—but the problems were only beginning. Attempts to investigate the cause of the falling-glass incidents uncovered a variety of alarming defects. Inhabitants of the tower began complaining about excessive building sway during high winds, which was particularly bad for those in the upper floors. Worst of all, it was revealed that the entire building was so inadequately designed that it was in danger of literally collapsing altogether. Fixing all these myriad flaws cost millions of dollars and delayed the official opening of the John Hancock Tower for years—once again proving the old axiom that an ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure.
601 Lexington Avenue (New York, NY)
Situated in midtown Manhattan, the 59-floor building known as 601 Lexington Avenue (formerly the Citigroup Center) provides another vivid near-miss example in the history of engineering. Built from 1974 to 1977, it posed an unusual design challenge because it had to be constructed in a way that would not interfere with St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, which rested on the premises. This problem was ingeniously solved by structural engineer William LeMessurier; he decided to build the whole thing on huge stilts that were nine stories tall. This seemed to be an ideal solution—until in the summer of 1978 LeMessurier received a tip from an engineering student who revealed that his oddly designed building could be dangerously unstable. In fact, it could even topple over in the face of a strong enough wind. The problem was that during the construction of the building, LeMessurier had consented to allow the use of bolted joints rather than more stable (and more expensive) welded joints, but although the change wasn’t supposed to create a safety risk, he had failed to fully account for the effects of quartering winds on a structure held together in such a fashion. More alarmingly, there was little time to make necessary changes: Hurricane season was already shaping up to be worse than usual. In a true race-against-time scenario, a construction crew worked for several months to reinforce the building as dangerous weather conditions closed in. Their efforts possibly prevented a major tragedy; today, the building’s distinctive design makes it one of the most prominent features of the Manhattan skyline. Incidentally, LeMessurier—who remains highly respected in the industry—was also one of the people called upon to fix the mess with the John Hancock Tower.
The Vdara Hotel & Spa (Las Vegas, NV)
Open to the public since December 1, 2009, the Vdara is a 59-story building intended to provide fun and relaxation for those visiting the Las Vegas Strip. What it isn’t intended to do is make its patrons feel like they’re being microwaved, but a design defect has done just that to more than a few visitors. The building’s concave design has the unfortunate effect of intensifying and reflecting dangerously hot sunrays onto the pool area. These rays are sometimes strong enough to melt plastic materials in the area as well as create a very unpleasant environment for those merely hoping to catch some sun. The Vdara “death ray,” as it has been cheekily termed, has attracted national media attention.
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- Morgenstern, Joe. “The Fifty-Nine Story Crisis.” The New Yorker. 29 May 1995.