When Architecture Fails
Burns, Robert, National Forum
I have been reading fifty or so essays by my second-year architecture students responding to the question "What is Architecture?" Their thoughts and arguments, whether idealistic, insightful, or naive, were usually buttressed with references to architecture's notable successes -- from the Great Pyramids to Frank Gehry's dramatic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. It is indeed inspiring to contemplate the countless works that constitute the rich heritage of architectural imagination. At the same time, it occurs to me that achievements in any field of endeavor may be equally well understood by comparison with their opposites -- the failures, the disappointing, and, in the case of architecture, the unsightly.
"When Technology Fails," narrowly interpreted, is relevant to only a small percentage of architectural disasters. Catastrophic structural collapses are rare except in the face of powerful natural forces such as hurricanes and earthquakes. So rare, in fact, are they that the discovery and correction of a potentially calamitous structural flaw in the towering Citicorp Center in Manhattan, revealed only five years ago in a remarkable New Yorker feature, made for a riveting, nearly unbelievable tale involving initial disbelief, personal courage, and a race against time. Incidentally, the hero of this story was a structural engineer, not an architect. ("The Fifty-Nine-Story Crisis," The New Yorker, May 29, 1995).
More common shortcomings include inadequate thermal conditions, leaky roofs, and building cladding systems that refuse to stay in place. Few episodes have been more visible or embarrassing than the image of the plywood-clad Boston John Hancock Tower after hundreds of its huge glass panels slipped their anchors and crashed to the sidewalks of Boston's Back Bay. However, these are not truly technological failures. For example, the deadly 1981 collapse of a pedestrian skybridge in the atrium of the Kansas City Hyatt, after years of litigation, was pinpointed as the result of an incorrectly installed suspension connector that went undetected during construction. Buildings today are built to remarkably high safety standards set by conservative building codes. As a result, most structural or material failures can be traced to human errors at some critical phase of the immensely complex process of construction or to the inevitable effects of too-long-deferred maintenance.
Far more commonplace and worrisome than technical deficiencies in buildings are the subtler failures of artistic vision and social aspiration. For every architectural felicity one encounters, there are hundreds of blatantly offensive and banal examples all about us.
Worst of all is the devastated city. The "City Beautiful" was once the American ideal. It was to be a place of clean, paved streets, leafy urban parks, dignified public buildings, and gracious residential districts -- a harmonious environment in which civic virtue, commerce, and family life would flourish. In the early decades of the twentieth century, this ideal seemed within grasp as many American cities transformed their nineteenth-century meanness into well-planned, agreeable urban environments. Streetcars and subways replaced unsanitary horse-drawn carriages, and the citizens of those optimistic times generously supported the construction of stately new courthouses, town halls, public libraries, and museums. The public architecture of the 1920s reached an unusually high level of design quality and constructional elegance that has not been equaled since. Regrettably, this movement was shortly to end. Its immediate cause was the recently arrived automobile, which soon became available to nearly everyone a nd was hailed by most as a technological marvel and an agent of personal liberation. Today's downtowns reflect clearly the drastic impact of the automobile. Pockmarked with asphalt parking lots, derelict buildings, and hostile streetscapes, downtown areas have been robbed of their earlier retail and social functions. …