Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Disaster Escaped

Translated by Hilary Luk |   中文版

A disaster escaped
“Trust me, sir, according to my thesis’ calculations, the building you’re designing will collapse!”

When Chief Engineer LeMessurier heard this warning from a Structural Engineering female student of Princeton University, he immediately called his colleagues together to re-analyse the building’s structure before he made new calculations.

Ultimately, his building was declared safe.

Months later, LeMessurier found himself in a meeting talking about the joints of the steel structures. Then, he suddenly realised that he had forgotten about a major change in plans. Originally, the joints were to be welded instead of connected the nuts and bolts they were using now. This realisation perfectly matched the female student’s conclusion!

LeMessurier immediately went into a cold sweat. He began fearing about the disaster that would occur if the wind blew at 70mph, which is exactly what happened 16 years ago. The building would not be able to withstand such a strong wind, and instead, crumble down at an angle of 45 degrees, falling sideways. The impact would be much worse than that of September 11, where the building collapsed straight down. In this case, the building would fall sideways against other buildings and tear them down too in a domino effect. And who knows how many people could die from this catastrophe?




LeMessurier’s building was New York’s Citicorp Building, built in 1978. This building was a brand new structure where LeMessurier used Tuned Mass Dampers to reduce the burden from wind and earthquakes (please see picture above). LeMessurier also used a V-shaped steel structure, which distributed the heaviest weight to the central pillar. The northwest corner did not require pillars, and could actually save space, which could be used to rebuild the local church.

Who would have thought this design would have brought such a dilemma to New York City!

LeMessurier then faced a few options: The Chinese method of ‘Playing Dumb’, the Korean method of suicide or simply running away and moving overseas. However, he chose the more responsible approach of meeting with the landlords.

LeMessurier spent a lot of effort and finally persuaded the restoration workers to begin work immediately. In the next three months, a team of welders added welding iron to the joints. The whole building was to be completed before the next typhoon.

To make things even more dramatic, the project began six weeks after Typhoon Ella attacked New York. The project was only half completed when Ella hit. However, LeMessurier can thank his lucky stars that Ella soon steered away from the building site. It was a very near miss for LeMessurier’s building.

LeMessurier’s story became public 20 years after. His decision-making became the subject of professional conduct textbooks. Some admire his great ethical sense as he never pretended that he was unaware of the potential disaster. Rather, he chose to tackle and avoid the unimaginable disaster responsibly. However, some criticize him for his wrong calculations, which could have resulted in an estimated 18-block collapse of buildings. Furthermore, some also criticize him for hiding the real facts from the public in order to save face, and to throw himself into a vain quest for honour.

However, in any case, New York City had escaped a major disaster until September 11, 2001.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Three Widows and a funeral


Wright can be portrayed as a tragic hero because he was very talented in the architectural world but suffered a lack of clients. He was world famous yet notorious. 

Another tragic hero is Louis Kahn (1901-1974). Kahn is undeniably one of the greatest modern architects. Kahn's architectural style was bold and pure. He re-introduced monumentality into modern architecture. Unfortunately, he had very few completed works and he died deeply in debt.


Kahn’s known works include the National Assembly Building in Bangladesh and Salk Institute Biological Research Centre.


Wright had three wives and one mistress who was previously his clients’ wife. One may consider this “immoral” and this caused many of his clients to flee from him. The poor wife of Wright and their six children were left abandoned and with a large amount of debt.

Three Widows and a funeral

Kahn juggled three women in his life simultaneously. Just managing to cope with three women and families alone would have been difficult not to mention the bankruptcy he often faced.. In addition to these long-term relationships, Kahn often had numerous girlfriends.

When he was three years old, Kahn was caught in a fire and consequently, suffered a face disfigurement. He was not your typical attractive and indulgent womaniser. He served to prove that architects share three common features; poverty, artistic quirkiness and lust.


Both of Kahn’s mistresses were his staff members. One was a building architect while the other was a landscape architect. Kahn fathered children with both women but did not do much to support their upbringing.

It was only at Kahn’s funeral where all three women met for the very first time. Kahn's wife sent word through friends that neither her husband's other children nor their mothers were welcome at Kahn's funeral. They showed up anyway, and were given seats at the rear of the funeral parlor. This funeral scene could be taken straight out of a soap opera.

Kahn's wife was a medical researcher and she even used her income to assist Kahn’s architecture firm. Kahn even resorted to moving in to his mother-in-law’s house to save money.


The mistress, who was also a building architect, was named Anne Tyng. She was also an interesting figure. In 1920, who was born in Lushan, China. In 1942 she became the first woman to ever be admitted into the Harvard School of Architecture. Her professor at the time was Gropius. Later, Tyng became the only female registered architect in Pennsylvania. Tyng is also considered to be a huge influence and contributor to many of Kahn's works.

In 2003, the son of the landscape architect shoot a documentary called My Architect, which described his pursuit to track down his long-absent father.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Taliesin Massacre


Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 - 1959) is believed to be America’s most famous architect. His masterpieces include Falling Water and the Guggenheim Museum in New York.


Wright lived a legendary life with his Falling Water referred as "the United States’ Greatest Building". In 1991, the American Institute of Architects named Wright “America’s Greatest Architect”.

On the other hand, Phillip Johnson, another architect, sarcastically named Wright “America’s Greatest Architect of the 19th Century”, implying that Wright’s fame would not last into the 20th century.


The Taliesin Massacre

Wright was not only known for his architectural works. His private life was enough to make headlines on its own. In fact, the Taliesin tragedy could be made ​​into a Hollywood horror film. This tragedy involved his self-designed dream house: the Taliesin. It occurred on August 15, 1914, when Wright was on a business trip. 

Wright had abandoned his wife and six children for his client's wife, Mamah. This relationship made ​​him notorious and as a consequence, he lost many customers. Julian Carlton was a newly hired worker who had a dispute with Mamah before the incident. However, his real motive for the massacre remains unknown.

Martha "Mamah" Borthwick
Julian Carlton

During breakfast, Carlton suddenly took an axe, and chopped Mamah, followed by Mamah’s 12-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter. After the attack, Carlton set fire to the corpses and the blaze started to spread. However, Carlton persisted and turned to attack the other employees. People attempted to escape, but all the doors and windows were locked. Out of the nine people, only two people (some believe three) were lucky enough to break windows to escape. 

After this tragedy, Wright rebuilt Taliesin. Today, Taliesen has been transformed into the Wright Memorial and is open to the public.