It’s been said that someone who never made a mistake never made anything. And that goes as much for designers – even famous ones – as it does for anyone else. If you learn from your mistakes failure can be a foundation for success. Of course it’s better, when you can, to learn from the mistakes of others, and as designers ourselves you can be sure we’ve taken the following object lessons to heart.
Leaning Tower of Pisa
Uniquely amongst architectural failures the Leaning Tower of Pisa is a success because it is a failure! Its wonky design makes it one of world’s best known landmarks and tourist destinations. Its famous tilt is the result of bad foundations, with ground too soft on one side to support its weight. It had been inching towards collapse since the 12th century, but was stabilised by a 20th century rescue project. Health and Safety doesn’t appear to be an issue even today: the guard rails on the top viewing platform only extend half way round – and guess which side they’re on? Yep, the side that tilts up!
Secret Intelligence Service Building
The SIS building is London’s spook central, HQ of M15 and M16 and the ‘Circus’ of
Le Carre’s George Smiley. The building is structurally sound and can claim to be both impressive and distinctive – some have compared it to a Mayan temple. But be that as it may, isn’t it a bit ostentatious and attention seeking for a secret organisation? It’s like the Masons holding an open evening or the Magic Circle giving show and tell demonstrations! An underground bunker would be more fit-for-purpose in architectural terms. But maybe it’s a clever double bluff?
Walkie Talkie Building
The London skyline is peppered with landmark buildings – such as the ‘Gherkin’, the ‘Cheesegrater’ and the ‘Shard’ – that are hailed as architectural triumphs or disasters depending on your point of view. Amongst these is the ‘Walkie Talkie’, so called because it looks like one. In 2015 it was awarded the Carbuncle Cup for the worst new building in the UK in the previous six months. But Health and Safety is also an issue here. The curved mirrored frontage of the building focuses sunlight on to local streets, damaging parked vehicles and scalding passersby. One journalist even highlighted the problem by frying eggs on the street!
Sydney Opera House
An unlikely candidate for a gallery of architectural failures you might think, the Sydney Opera House’s sail-like design is a subject of national pride and international acclaim. Surprisingly for a structure designed as a concert venue, a major problem turned out to be its acoustics! It was decided that the small sail part of the complex would be the opera house and the large sail part would be the concert hall. Unfortunately the concert hall was too big to fill for most events and the opera house too small for musicians to hear themselves. A multi-million dollar refit was undertaken – an expense that fitness-for-purpose planning could have prevented.
The problem with London’s Millennium Dome was not so much that it was unfit for purpose than that it didn’t have a purpose at all – other than to mark the Millennium and be a vanity project for New Labour. It turned out to be little more than a big top for a circus with an acrobatic cast of 160. It cost nearly £800 million, attracted only half of the anticipated 12 million visitors in the first year and closed shortly afterwards. A stadium for Charlton Athletic and a high-tech business park were amongst the after uses considered for the dome before it was finally redeveloped as the O2 Arena in 2007 with a concert by the rock band Bon Jovi.
Houses of Parliament
The Houses of Parliament are not so much an architectural mistake as a disaster waiting to happen. The original Palace of Westminster, home of the Kings of England, was destroyed by fire in 1512. It was replaced by the ‘Old Palace’, which was destroyed by fire in 1834. The existing ‘New Palace’ – built in the Gothic Revival style by Charles Berry – is now once again considered a serious fire risk and plans are afoot for both houses to vacate the building for a major refurbishment – expected to take six years and cost £3.5 billion. Which goes to show that the design team must keep abreast of advancing technology and increasingly stringent building standards.