When Architecture Fails: The Leaning Tower of Pisa and Beauvais Cathedral
I love it when architecture fails spectacularly.
I’ve previously talked about the Bent Pyramid in ancient Egypt, which took 20 years to build and doesn’t actually contain anyone because it threatened to collapse. There’s also the Black Pyramid, whose mud brick core essentially melted during construction.
But, just to ensure you that this medievalist does not play favorites, I give you two medieval examples of architectural fails: the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Beauvais Cathedral.
Famous Architecture Fail: The Leaning Tower of Pisa
From the pictures one always sees, you would think the Leaning Tower of Pisa was built in the middle of an empty field. In fact, it’s a freestanding bell-tower next to Pisa Cathedral, following the Italian custom of building bell towers as separate buildings.
As an Aside: Italian architectural tradition also puts the baptistry in a separate building. As such, baptisms are separate rituals from standard worship services.
As is also typical in Italian medieval and Renaissance architecture, Pisa cathedral (and associated buildings) looks particularly Roman, being covered in marble and employing more Roman arches than you can shake a stick at.
The leaning tower of Pisa managed to fail not once but twice. First, it had a lousy foundation, which is what caused the famous lean before construction was even finished. The second fail was when the builders thought it would be a good idea to continue building but at an angle, with one side shorter than the other in order to compensate for the tilt. This means even if we could fully upright the bottom of the tower, the top of the tower would still lean, slowly bringing the rest of the tower back into a lean as gravity does its thing. It’s physically impossible to straighten the tower.
As an Aside: Tourists were banned from the Leaning Tower in 1990 because of structural instability, but they regained access in 2001 after the tower’s lean was lessened through the application of cables, hydraulic jacks, drills, lead weights, and tons of concrete. The tower will hopefully remain stable for the next couple hundred years.
Architecture of Beauvais Cathedral
Around the year 1000 CE, the beginning of the High Middle Ages, large Romanesque churches began being built. These were multistory buildings held up by Roman arches, a technique Western Europe hadn’t seen since the fall of Rome.
Around 1200 CE, round Roman arches began to be steeper and pointed, becoming we now call a Gothic arch. These better distributed the weight of the building, allowing for structures to be larger, most notably taller.
In France, where Gothic architecture started, there was a race to see who could build the tallest church. The famous Notre Dame of Paris is a Gothic church and stands more than 100 feet tall. Not bad for a building made by barbarians, in the view of Renaissance writers who decided to derogatorily call their style Gothic.
As an Aside: Italy, being highly contemptuous of everything medieval, particularly Gothic styles, pretty much skipped over this construction phase altogether. They went straight from Romanesque building into the Renaissance, which started in Italy.
They also raced to see who could include the most stained glass, which, of course, required removing as much of the walls as possible.
Beauvais Cathedral was meant to be the tallest church in Europe, and at 157 feet in height, it would have succeeded, if only it hadn’t kept falling down. After multiple collapses during construction, the church gave up after completing the apse, transepts and choir, and even then it required bracing. On the inside, that included large, heavy wooden beams.
On the outside, that included horizontal iron bars. In the 1960s, someone very smart concluded the bars were not actually necessary, so they were removed. It was quickly discovered they actually were necessary and steel bars were installed.