From Error to Acceleration

Sam Fu and Ridvan Bruss

The Errors that Springboard Architecture from Ridvan Bruss on Vimeo.

Most frequently, innovation is accomplished through a need or through the improvement of a service. Though progress proves to be relatively smooth and constant, there are points in which developments gain tremendous momentum and quickly become widespread. Examples such as the first elevators, the Chicago Fire and the Collapse of the Kemper arena demonstrate how architectural accelerations are sparked by the string of lessons generated through failures and mishaps.

The Adoption of the Elevator

King Louis the XV, Versailles, 1743

In 1743 King Louis XV wished to connect the levels of his apartments in Versailles without

Hand Drafted designs for an early Otis elevator

using a pair of stairs, in response the king’s inventors devised the first elevator, a simple platform whose lift was granted from the turns of a water wheel. Initially this system was used for basic movement between a few levels, though as cities became denser and vertical development was required, the first elevators gained popularity despite the high risk. However, as buildings reached new heights, the count of elevator failures also rose.

The increasing accidents demanded more sophisticated mechanical equipment, which in turn led to the development of the modern safety elevator invented by Elisha Otis in

1852. When the safety elevator had been successfully refined, the elevator soon became widespread and enabled the new form of vertical circulation to become a comfortable norm.

Demonstration of the first Safety Elevator

The Great Fire of Chicago

Chicago, 1871

1871 presented the city of Chicago with a particularly dry and hot summer. Though the city was the fastest growing city of its time, the townspeople had to bear a difficult drought. Constructs built of wood became dry as the wood ran dry of its natural moisture content. At the time, wood was the most commonly used construction material; beyond building structures, each facade had been carefully crafted and ornamented from wood, and each dry street had been lined with wooden boardwalks. On a windy day in early October, a cow kicked a lantern over causing her hay to catch fire. The fire quickly consumed the rest of the barn containing the cow and her hay. The dry winds swept the landscape towards the city of Chicago. Initially, the dwellers of Chicago did not see the fire as a major threat, though the persistent winds encouraged the fire to burn until it ran out of fuel. News quickly circulated about “The Great Calamity of the Age”, an event that left hundreds of thousands of people displaced and hundreds of facilities razed.


Despite the drought, the city was quick to recover; the Chicago Tribune circulated encouraging headlines pronouncing that “CHICAGO SHALL RISE AGAIN.” The city planners and architects rebuilt their homes again, conscious of potential fires. The event demonstrated how the damage, speed and danger of such uncontrollable fires become multiplied by the density

of such urban settings. Through the consultation of architects, planners and politicians, the immature fire codes were revised to require appropriate spacing between buildings. Other codes enforced that wood should not be used in such a monopolized

manner. The construction policies promoted techniques such as masonry and developed the respective industry.

sprinklers, invented in London shortly after the second fire of London. Fire exits became mandatory as were fire stairs. The growing attention and power that the codes exercised on architects and developers sparked the development of new materials such as rock wall- gypsum boards (drywall), treated plywood and fireproofed insulation. The effects of such policies become visible a century later as the construction materials have become the most commonly found and economic options used in construction.


Though these ideas, techniques, and materials were not necessarily new, many were adopted from other cities at the time. Chicago was not the only city of the century to be put through such tests; other fires were sparked in the coming years, a few major ones including the fires of London and Boston. The concerns of fire safety began to manifest and accumulate internationally. By the beginning of the 20th century, international fire codes were drafted and implemented noting practical measures such as the integration of fire

It is noteworthy that such common modern materials were not adopted by whim or aesthetic fancy, but rather prove to be deeply rooted old fires such as those of Boston, Chicago and London.

Collapse of the Kemper Arena

Kemper Arena, Kansas City, 1979, Helmut Jahn

Parallel to the advancement of fire-proof materials, structural materials had also made strides. One particularly notable material was the adoption of the alloy, steel. The fast development in the steel industry vaulted architectural to new potentials, opening more room for structural experimentation and innovation.


Highlighting the structural integrity of steel, the Kemper Arena of Kansas City exhibited a triangulated exoskeleton from which the roof hung, the construct was marveled and even awarded by the American Institute of Architects for its design in the 1970’s. However, during the summer at the end of the decade, a major storm with 70 mph winds tested its capacity. At 6:45 in the evening of June 4th 1979, a major storm caused part of the roof to collapse. Fortunately, the building was unoccupied at the time, leading to no injuries or fatalities.

In response to the city’s low-capacity sewage system, the roof of the arena had been designed to drain rainwater gradually. This caused rainwater to accumulate on the roof. Though the ‘revolutionary’ simplicity of the steel trusses suspending the roof had been expected to hold the weight, the roof began to sag under such a mass of water. The strength of the bolts which attached the concrete roof to the steel frame had also been miscalculated. A single faulty bolt gave way to the great tension, triggering the failure of many surrounding bolts.

In the early 70’s, computer modeling was still considered relatively new in commercial applications. In designing the Kemper Arena, the architects had relied on computer simulations to calculate many aspects of the building’s structural soundness, such as the strength of the steel type

6a01630272cfde970d016764a7e30c970b-800wiused, the size of the bolts in order to compensate for structural movement, and whether the roof could support the weight of the rainwater. Unfortunately, the computer models were incorrect, leading to the catastrophic structural failure to the building just four years after it opened. Nearly an acre of the roof collapsed, increasing the internal air pressure so much that several walls were blown out. This event, followed by the 1987 collapse of the Hartford Civic Center caused architects to question the computer models that had been used to calculate structural soundness. As a result, calculations derived from computer simulations became more conservative, allowing for a much greater margin for error. As arguments persisted, the computer simulators were quickly pushed to advance. The systems became more accurate

and precise, though the algorithms still had their faults. The strides that were made by the programming industries enabled architects to test and create new forms that can be safely occupied still seen today.


It is known that in the countless centuries leading to King Louis’ 1743 demand for an elevator, the advancement of architecture was slow; though when risks are taken and the frontiers of architecture are advanced, speed is gained. The many failures call for new solutions, and the creative findings only generate momentum. The faults and calamities become stepping stones for further progress. Both the Chicago fire and the Kemper arena are but two of many examples of conditions which resulted in a “lesson learned” and a “victory earned”. By investigating the outcomes of calamity, it becomes apparent that architectural faults and failures accelerate and are even indispensable to the advancement of architecture.


[link to Project 1 controversy Expressions post]

[“Chicago fire of 1871 (American history) — Encyclopedia Britannica.” Encyclopedia Britannica. (accessed October 14, 2013).]

“Chicago Fire Newspaper Collection 1871-1909.” The University of Chicago Library. (accessed October 14, 2013).

[The Chicago History Society. “History Files – Chicago Fire.” Chicago History Museum | . (accessed October 14, 2013).]

“Front Page News | The Great Chicago Fire & The Web of Memory.” Introduction | The Great Chicago Fire & The Web of Memory. (accessed October 14, 2013).

Google News. “Spokane Daily Chronicle.” Google News [News History Database].,1156079 (accessed October 14, 2013).

“Kemper Arena | Home | Exponent.” Exponent. (accessed October 14, 2013).

Mitsubishi Electric Corporation. “Elevators & Escalators.” Mitsubishi Electric. (accessed October 28, 2013).

PBS. “Elisha Otis.” Who Made America?. (accessed October 28, 2013).

Torch, Jonathan. “Failures – Kemper Arena, Kansas City.”,+Kansas+City,+Missouri (accessed October 14, 2013).

The Weather Channel. “Great Chicago Fire 1871 – YouTube.” YouTube. (accessed October 14, 2013).

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>