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The Fifty-Nine-Story Crisis
April 20, 2007 9:43 PM   Subscribe

The Fifty-Nine-Story Crisis. In 1978, renowned structural engineer William LeMessurier discovered a mistake in his design for the Citicorp (now Citigroup) Center. With hurricane season approaching, the skyscraper was in imminent danger of collapse. His handling of the situation has been praised as a "stunning example of good ethics in action" – but some disagree.
posted by smably (46 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Corrected last link. I'd read the New Yorker piece on this story, but not the opposing view — thanks for posting this.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 9:49 PM on April 20, 2007


LeMessurier told his audience of faculty members and engineering students at a videotaped Mechanical Engineering Colloquium:
We had to cook up a line of bull, I’ll tell you. And white lies at this point are entirely moral. You don’t want to spread terror in the community to people who don’t need to be terrorized. We were terrorized, no question about that.
Paging Leo Strauss!
posted by orthogonality at 10:00 PM on April 20, 2007


Thanks for the link to the dissenting opinion. It raises some interesting points.
posted by maxwelton at 10:14 PM on April 20, 2007


The tower is an abomination surpassed only by the Hancock building in Boston which dropped numerous windows onto the street below. Tuned mass damper??? Build a correct structure and you won't need such a crutch to make your design work. Some engineers knew how to fuse design and beauty into an aesthetic whole. The Citicorp building is a textbook example of the worst of civil engineering. Uggh.
posted by caddis at 10:58 PM on April 20, 2007


Nice post. Thanks.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:02 PM on April 20, 2007


The architect was frightened by the possibilities, and he attempted to have them fixed, risking his reputation as an insurable designer.

He was pretty gutsy.
posted by dglynn at 11:08 PM on April 20, 2007


He was pretty gutsy.

He also tried to keep it quiet. Gutsy would have been to be completely honest.
posted by delmoi at 11:42 PM on April 20, 2007


Please allow me to quote from the New Yorker article (which ran in 1995, btw):

"Most important, modern skyscrapers are so strong that catastrophic collapse is not considered a realistic prospect..."

The "experts" said similar things about the World Trade Center, as I do recall.

And compare that article with the one that Damn Interesting ran last year:
http://www.damninteresting.com/?p=500
quote: "Horrified, LeMessurier fled to his island hideaway on Sebago Lake to refine the findings and consider his options. "

"Mistakes" like this one happen in the construction business all the time. People sometimes die. But the smartasses who did the deed retire to their private island retreats, smug behind their multi-million-dollar fee payments.

The old joke still holds: tall buildings are penis erections, built to please very small men in suits.
posted by metasonix at 11:43 PM on April 20, 2007


That's amazing - thanks.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:45 PM on April 20, 2007


The last link to the criticism of LeMessurier is pretty fluffy in that it doesn't state clearly counter claims, but rather just eludes to them and the author concludes that he is going to continue to study the matter.
posted by bhouston at 11:47 PM on April 20, 2007


Great story - thanks.

The "experts" said similar things about the World Trade Center, as I do recall.

I don't know that any buildings were designed to withstand what was, in effect, a missle strike.
posted by chrisamiller at 12:00 AM on April 21, 2007


metasonix- what shape should a building take to maximize land usage? I've never quqite understood that metaphor, as if there was a range of shapes a building could take.
posted by jonah at 12:33 AM on April 21, 2007


Metasonix, I don't understand what you're trying to say here. Engineers should never make mistakes? Shouldn't get paid a lot of money? What's your point?
posted by !Jim at 12:43 AM on April 21, 2007


posted by delmoiHe also tried to keep it quiet. Gutsy would have been to be completely honest.

He was honest. When he discovered the error, he brought it to the attention of his client and took the steps neccessary to correct it.
posted by fandango_matt at 1:05 AM on April 21, 2007


He also tried to keep it quiet. Gutsy would have been to be completely honest.

He should have handled it like the other engineering mistakes that were made in similar buildings. Let's compare.

Are there other situations that are comparable? If yes, then those would make some interesting links.

If no, then I guess we have the one case of a structural engineer making a mistake on a large building.

The pool of 50+ story buildings in the world is probably large enough that the odds of this being the only error that would require retro-fitting seems small. I could be wrong.

But if there were other buildings with similar problems, now would be a great time for the structural engineers of MeFi to hook us up with some links to those tales of terror.

Interesting subject, either way.
posted by dglynn at 1:53 AM on April 21, 2007


Man! So that's where that little bit of bolts being weaker than welded joints bit of trivia came from. I remember seeing a diagram explaining how the structural integrity of the building was weaker using bolts, but that was so long ago I forgot what the context was. Thank you for illuminating a bit of my childhood.
posted by Mister Cheese at 2:06 AM on April 21, 2007


He hardly went to some multi-million dollar island hideaway. Geez. He owned a little piece of land (12 acres - gasp) in Maine. And went there to work out the details.

Anyone who has ever worked on a techincal project of any kind knows that this sort of thing happens. And when people realize something had gone wrong they rarely step up. I think he deserves some credit. But mostly it's just an interesting story.

I've never worked on a $175 million project, but I've led a few multi-million dollar projects and they're complicated. You use your experience and everyone else's and use a bunch of standards because they've been developed over the years - but EVERY project is unique and the interplay of factors is never the same twice and that is what causes unqiue complications to arise. Not malfeasance or malice or stupidity. Yeah, they're still liable, that what you get paid for...but hey, CitiCorp got $2 million and LeMessuier's insurnace rates went way up I bet.

Nice story.
posted by django_z at 2:17 AM on April 21, 2007


Wasnt this an episode of NUMB3RS?
posted by phaedon at 3:20 AM on April 21, 2007


The "experts" said similar things about the World Trade Center, as I do recall.
Actually, the WTC was engineered by Les Robertson and Associates, and they did account for a plane hitting it in their design. They anticipated that the plane would have been accidentally hitting it; what they didn't account for was the pilot of the plane intentionally hitting it and accelerating the plane. So please reserve your irony quotes for irony.
posted by DenOfSizer at 3:25 AM on April 21, 2007


Oh, and please hang up your archiac penis/skyscraper analogy. As a woman architect working on a skyscraper for a woman client, to me it sounds like a tired old facile cliche. Next you'll accuse me of designing curvy forms.
posted by DenOfSizer at 3:37 AM on April 21, 2007


And finally, it sounds as if the grossest lapses of ethics were not Le Messieur's, but Citicorp's.
posted by DenOfSizer at 3:42 AM on April 21, 2007


Caddis, my understanding is that tuned mass dampers are a pretty accepted method of stress alleviation in modern supertalls. For example the taipei 101 uses it , and the Shanghai World Financial Center that is being built will have one (just the ones I know of. I'm sure there's others).
You are right that they are a crutch in that they aid the building structure which consequently doesn't have to be as strong, and resulting in a lighter construction.
Sure you could design the building from the outset to be sufficiently strong to not need one by beefing it up, but why?
posted by Catfry at 4:03 AM on April 21, 2007


From the first link:

Without addressing the ethics of suicide in general, since LeMessurier states that he could have hidden his knowledge of the flawed structure, his contemplation of suicide could hardly have been more irresponsible.

Calling someone unethical because they freak out and briefly contemplate suicide? Asshole.

But seriously: I think we've got a case of an "ethicist" who's completely divorced from the real world. According to him, William LeMessurier's is "unethical" for taking the time to make sure he's right about the building's flaws, and getting the building's owners and city authorities involved in the process.

What's the alternative? Is LeMessurier supposed to evacuate the building himself? Run through the streets of New York screaming "the buildng is going to fall! the building is going to fall!"? If he had gone off on his own, everyone probably would have ignored him as crazy, and the building probably wouldn't have been corrected.

Is CrossCurrents ("the best of thought and writing on religion and the world") even a real magazine? 'Cuz it's got a really shallow view of how ethics and reality interact.
posted by faster than a speeding bulette at 5:03 AM on April 21, 2007 [3 favorites]


But welded joints, which are labor-intensive and therefore expensive, can be needlessly strong; in most cases, bolted joints are more practical and equally safe. That was the position taken at the May meeting by a man from U.S. Steel, a potential bidder on the contract to erect the Pittsburgh towers.

There's your asshole right there. Fucking U.S. Steel. "Needlessly strong?" Such a beast does not exist.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:54 AM on April 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


What's wrong with tuned mass dampers? You save a ton (a literal understatement) of material and cost and get the same effect.
posted by DU at 6:20 AM on April 21, 2007


The US Steel guy was lacking the wind calculations that led to the redesign, because they hadn't been done at that point. It's a fascinating look at a cascade of cause & effect. There's a long trail through a project this size, because the work is divided amongst so many entities. I may be impossible for contractor X to know that designer Y miscalculated something. Anyway, it's a fascinating read.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:24 AM on April 21, 2007


Tuned mass dampers are integral to super tall buildings: why? wind, baby, wind.

This was a great New Yorker article, and one I've referred to a bunch of times since. I did not realize it was written in 1995. That's a while ago.

And, lastly, the citicorp building is a breathtakingly ugly mootherfucking building.
posted by From Bklyn at 6:36 AM on April 21, 2007


Fucking U.S. Steel. "Needlessly strong?" Such a beast does not exist.

Sure it does. I could make the 104th floor of the Sears Tower able to hold the heaviest transmitters by using solid steel, rather than beam with reinforced concrete.

Then, of course, I need to increase the size of every column in the building to hold that floor up.

Then, of course, I need to increase the rents, because there's now less rentable space, and I need to pay for all of that steel -- and all of the labor to weld/bolt it.

Then, of course, the building isn't built, because it costs too much.

In a world were labor and materials cost money, needlessly strong is a bad design constraint. The core problem here was that US Steel was wrong, welding the joints was not "needlessly strong", it was needed. At the time, however, we didn't fully understand the forces on the joints, and bolted joints looked just fine.

So that's where that little bit of bolts being weaker than welded joints bit of trivia came from.

Don't assume that. What material are you using? How many bolts? How competent is the welder? What forces are on the joint.

The heat of welding will alter the properties of the welded material. There's a real reason that many aircraft surfaces are riveted or bolted, not welded.

Then, there's the cost. It takes a skilled worker longer to properly weld a joint than it takes a less skilled worker to properly bolt or rivet a joint, and this difference increases dramatically with the size of a joint. Properly designed bolted joints are vastly easier and cheaper to make -- and make correctly.

The pool of 50+ story buildings in the world is probably large enough that the odds of this being the only error that would require retro-fitting seems small.

Of course. This wasn't even the most expensive refit. The Standard Oil Building, now the Aon Center, in Chicago, a 1100 foot tall box, was originally clad in marble. The mounting was badly designed, worse, the marble itself couldn't handle Chicago's weather extremes, and it started to fail.

Imagine two story high sheets of marble plummeting a thousand feet.

The entire building was reclad in granite, with entirely new connections to the frame, between 1990 and 1992. The cost? About half the original cost of the building.
posted by eriko at 6:59 AM on April 21, 2007 [4 favorites]


Rochester's Lincoln First Tower suffered the same problem as the Standard Oil Building. It was reclad in aluminum.
posted by tommasz at 7:17 AM on April 21, 2007


Someone requested a link to other towers with similar structural problems. So here it is.

I found the dissent linked above very troubling to read. As a design professional we clearly have an ethical responsibility to speak and act according to truth and reality. But, there are a number of statements (the castigation for considering suicide being the most egregious) that indicate to me that this is a biased view of the events. Is the greatest ethical responsibility of the engineer to safeguard the public, or to take blame for error even if that may result in a hostile relationship with the client?

Were the engineer to come out with public statements that directly contradicted the building owner, I'm not convinced the outcome would have been greater immediate public safety. While I don't believe it was handled perfectly, the fact that he convinced the client well after construction to quickly move to remediate the problem and also worked with public authorities to plan for a disaster is the key.

So, I come down in the middle. He isn't my model for ethical behavior, but speaking in the language of the realities of the industry he did step beyond the confines of what was strictly expected.
posted by meinvt at 7:34 AM on April 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Great story, smably, thanks.

Fantastic comment, eriko.
posted by bru at 8:26 AM on April 21, 2007


I love this building - from the moment I read about it in a skyscraper feature in National Geographic years ago, can't get enough of that slant!

When my wife and I were in New York this time last year for our honeymoon, 53rd & Lex was our local subway. I hadn't heard about this crisis until after we got back home, but I used to think that the church was unusual every time we walked past it - mainly because it looked part of the Citigroup building (but not actually attached as it turns out).

The National Geographic article didn't go into details about engineering problems as I hadn't heard about Hancock either, despite a full article dedicated to this particular building (which is another favourite of mine)
posted by bruzie at 8:58 AM on April 21, 2007


Structural designs are modified to save cost all the time. Many of these modifcations are analyzed by underlings, rather than the original engineers; often new weaknesses are introduced that go unnoticed. See the 1981 Kansas City Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse for another example of contractors changing designs for the worse. The real fault in this case is the engineering firm, though. They sent out preliminary sketches and failed to fully analyze the contractor's alterations.

I am so glad I'm not a structural engineer
posted by tylermoody at 9:29 AM on April 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Cool post. We studied this incident in school but I didn't know about all the personal details. It's sort of a classic engineering case of not fully taking into account the environment that your creation will live in and how small changes in the implementation can cause huge changes in the behavior of the system. I was studying software engineering but since there isn't enough about that discipline we had to read about other types of engineering.

I'm sort of in the middle about how he handled it, probably he should have been more open about it but they did fix it in time and the building is still standing there and nobody died.

Oh and the deal with the Kansas City collapse was that the design as written was un-buildable so the contractor had to improvise. Most of the blame is still really with the original design.
posted by octothorpe at 11:35 AM on April 21, 2007


I remember that New Yorker article, and was glad to read it again. I was going to bitch about the "some disagree" link, but faster than a speeding bulette did it for me—asshole indeed!—so I'll just thank smably for the link and add that this perplexes me as much as it did when I first read the piece:

"consideration of wind from non-perpendicular directions on ordinary rectangular buildings is generally not discussed in the literature or in the classroom."

WTF? "Gee, the math is easier for perpendicular directions, so let's pretend all winds are perpendicular." Brilliant! I thought engineers were supposed to be realists?
posted by languagehat at 12:37 PM on April 21, 2007


I don't think there's any question but that LeMessurier acted ethically. Certainly, the situation -- at this scale -- was unprecedented. The way that the situation has been examined and presented as a learning experience has lent value beyond price to the profession of civil engineering. Beyond price. Obviously there are ways that, decades later, the situation may be dissected and alternatives proposed. That's part of the lessons-learned value.

But as said, every building is in its own way a prototype. You may draw on your own years of experience in design engineering, but you may still err. I believe that the engineer's responsibility in this case is judged on the actions taken to mitigate the error, not the publicity.
posted by dhartung at 1:19 PM on April 21, 2007


Great post.
posted by WPW at 1:23 PM on April 21, 2007


Great post. Having on occasion had a few hundred thousand of someone elses dollars riding on whether or not I could make something work, I can only gulp in horror at what LeMessurier went through in those days.
posted by localroger at 4:04 PM on April 21, 2007


Oh, did I mention I'm trying to design a tornado proof house? I think I'll go code the mesh for the really thorough 3D analysis now.
posted by localroger at 4:09 PM on April 21, 2007


Another interesting wind/skyscraper anecdote involving unintended consequences is about the WTC. Apparently the twin towers focused the wind between them (Bernoulli effect?) and aimed it at another structure. The wind loads weren't a problem, but the dust in the air effectively sandblasted the smaller structure, eroding it many multiples faster than is normally expected.
posted by bashos_frog at 4:11 PM on April 21, 2007


Bashos frog: That's an interesting story. Citation?
posted by tylermoody at 6:34 PM on April 21, 2007


languagehat: perpendicular wind's aren't just the easiest maths, but also the highest forces. Any skyscraper with a normal support structure would be protected from quarter winds by regular-direction fortification, but the tower's unque base effed things up.
posted by tylermoody at 6:38 PM on April 21, 2007


Wow, great link. And phaedon, this was an episode of NUMB3RS.

I also think Le Messuriers handled it well - he realized he had a problem and worked to solve it. No need to needlessly advertise your failings or scare the crap out of people if you can avoid it.
posted by shoesietart at 8:36 PM on April 21, 2007


"Needlessly strong?" Such a beast does not exist.

Of course it does, and it's very basic engineering. Build everything like a tank and everything will have the price, fuel consumption, maintenance requirements and operational complexity of a tank. Bicycles should be built like bicycles; tanks should be built like tanks.

Here are a couple of simple everyday examples of what happens when you build something stronger than it needs to be. Just about every tinkerer can provide their own list of examples.
posted by dansdata at 11:53 PM on April 21, 2007


languagehat: perpendicular wind's aren't just the easiest maths, but also the highest forces. Any skyscraper with a normal support structure would be protected from quarter winds by regular-direction fortification, but the tower's unque base effed things up.

Ah, that makes sense, thanks.
posted by languagehat at 5:42 AM on April 22, 2007


metasonix writes "'Most important, modern skyscrapers are so strong that catastrophic collapse is not considered a realistic prospect...'

"The 'experts' said similar things about the World Trade Center, as I do recall."


I doubt there is a 30+ story building on the planet that can't be taken down by the right terrorist action.

Catfry writes "You are right that they are a crutch in that they aid the building structure which consequently doesn't have to be as strong, and resulting in a lighter construction.
"Sure you could design the building from the outset to be sufficiently strong to not need one by beefing it up, but why?"


To paraphrase: Any fool can build a bridge that stands. It takes and engineer to build a bridge that will barely stand.
posted by Mitheral at 5:08 PM on April 24, 2007


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