Wednesday, 07 November 2007

Building on a legend

Why do people love telling and believing urban legends, those friend-of-a-friend stories you can never really prove?

One theory is that it's a subconscious way of getting revenge on a world they cannot control. By participating in the spread of stories that undermine the credibility of a person, institution, product or even a building that they associate with their woes, they gain a small measure of satisfaction at having "fought back".

Buildings especially attract an enormous number of bizarre legends, especially where they are large or expensive structures people believe shouldn't have been erected in the first place. So they'll swallow any malicious or hilarious story they hear about the building.

Thus it was with the Lost City at Sun City a decade or so ago, after it had opened to much hype and some outrage over its enormous cost. It quickly became part of a family of international urban legend we can only refer to as ...

That Sinking Feeling

In his rush to get the Lost City complex ready in time for its official opening (so the story went), Sol Kerzner pushed the architects and builders as hard as they could stand, and gave them little time to run proper tests on soils, surfaces, and so on. Sure enough, the complex opened on time, with visitors gasping in awe at the magnificence of the Palace hotel, the intricate detail of the Lost City, and the amazing spectacle of the Bridge of Time, which shakes in a fake earthquake every hour on the hour.

But then the rumour started, and quickly developed into a full-blown urban legend: they'd cordoned off the bridge and closed it to the public, because they'd discovered it was less stable than was desirable even for a shaking bridge.

The architects had not been given enough time to run tests on the soil, but the tests they had run had shown that the surface was solid, and could carry the weight of the bridge as well as the pressure of the "earthquakes". But they had made one mistake: they had tested it in the dry season.

When the rains came, the ground became waterlogged, and could no longer support the bridge - which was slowly sinking away into the ground.

Of course, the bridge still stands today, as do numerous edifices which are supposedly sinking around the world.

Book ends

The most popular of these urban legends focus on magnificent new libraries, especially on university campuses where new students will believe almost anything they're told by old-timers. American folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand has found versions of the urban legend attached to the Robarts Research Library at the University of Toronto, the campus library at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, the Sciences Library at Brown University, a new library at the University of California at San Diego, the Charles Deering Library (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) at Northwestern University, Illinois, and the ES Bird Library at Syracuse University.

In every case the story went that, when the architect designed the foundations, he had in mind only the weight of the building itself. It never crossed his mind to take into account the weight of the millions of books that would fill the building. So, naturally, the soil could not support the foundations, and the building began sinking.

The same legend is now emerging about Olympic-sized swimming pools that were designed with the weight of the pool structure in mind, but not the water. When they filled it up, the entire pool began sinking.

Backward logic

That's almost as bad as the urban legend about the architect who designed a building one-way, the plans were misread, and the building ended up facing the wrong way.

One version is told of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, completed for the Glasgow Exhibition of 1901. The main entrance consists of three plain arched entries, while the back entrance is flanked by impressive twin towers - designed to accommodate temporary pavilions during the exhibition. Two architects were involved, but the legend persists to this day that it was one architect, who was so aghast at the mistake, he committed suicide by leaping from one of the towers on opening day.

An older Scottish version of the legend has the architect of Fort George, between Inverness and Nairn, being given instructions that the fort had to be invisible from the sea. Upon completion, he rowed out to see, and discovered that a single chimney of the fort could be seen. Horrified and shamed, according to the legend, "he drew a pistol and blew his brains out".

Plan B

Another popular family of building legends has the blueprints or building materials for similar buildings on two university campuses in the same town swopped round, so that the University of Johannesburg (formerly RAU), for instance, has one very Wits-looking building blotting its landscape, and Wits has a suspiciously modern UoJ-looking structure intruding amid its ivy towers.

The most extreme version of this legend comes from the California State University at Hayward, where every single building was supposedly designed for other universities, the plans were found unacceptable, but somehow they got built on Hayward campus!

Big gas

The most bizarre of all the falling building urban legends must be the Asian tale of the building that collapsed due to a gas explosion from a buried dead elephant underneath the building. Sounds like something right out of the Lost City.

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