August 09, 2010

Leaning Tower of Pisa

It’s an Italian treasure, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and an obligatory stop on any whirlwind tour of Europe. It’s also an architectural failure. Behold the Leaning Tower of Pisa—not a word and not a person, but still an unfortunate way to be remembered.

Though historians disagree on the exact identity of its architect, all agree that construction on the flaccid monolith began today in 1173 and that the foundation was doomed from the start. At only ten feet deep and set into loose subsoil, it was only a matter of time before it began sinking on one side. The reality of the poor planning was realized in five short years, by which point three floors of the tower had been completed. The Pisans ultimately abandoned construction for nearly a century to fight wars with the Genoans, Luccans, and Florentines. This had the unintentional result of allowing the soil under the foundation to settle, ensuring that although the building would forever be a monumental cautionary tale, it likely wouldn’t topple.

Workers started up again in 1272, this time trying to lengthen the subsequent floors on the tilting side to even things out. This resulted in a lean to the opposite direction and an overall curve to the structure that remains to this day. In 1964 the Italian government faced the uncomfortable quandary of wanting to correct the tilt to avoid a possible catastrophe while preserving what had by this time become a quirky tourist attraction. A partial solution was to add hundreds of tons of lead bars to the high end of the base as a counterbalance. A quarter century later in 1990, workers removed soil from beneath the raised end to straighten out the tower by 18 inches. But it wasn’t until the removal of nearly 100 more tons of soil in 2008 that engineers declared the tower had finally stopped sinking for the first time since it was built more than 800 years before.

To satisfy those wanting a word connection to this architectural anomaly, “The Leaning Tower of Pisa” does sport an impressive anagram—“What a Foreign Stone Pile.”