March 1, 2010
haiti elemental
Port au Prince Devastation, UN Development Program, 2010 (source)
Quinta Monroy Residential Development, designed by Elemental, Chile, 2004 (source)


When cats fail, lolz to the max. When architecture fails; death.


The tragic results of architectural failure have meant a long history of building regulations. As early as 1700 BC the Code of Hammurabi decreed that: ‘If a builder builds a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built falls in and kills its owner, then that builder shall be put to death’. While failure due to negligence is effectively dissuaded through punitive measures, the approach is useless against unintentional failures: failures due to accidents or natural disasters. As recently as the 19th century, it was common for entire cities to burn down due to a lack of fire regulations and insufficient or non-existent plumbing and incendiary infrastructure. It was not until the great fires in Chicago, New York, London and elsewhere, that these municipalities finally overhauled fire safety response tactics, and shifted towards a policy of prevention—the birth of modern day fire codes. In these cases it took massive failure for us to collectively learn from our mistakes. The recent examples of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and the earthquake in Haiti, suggest that there is still much learning to be done.


E. Sean Bailey


Buildings fail for any number of reasons, under a variety of conditions. A uniquely powerful example that demonstrates architectural failure is, of course, Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe. A public housing project consisting of thirty-three apartment blocks built in 1955, it was conceived under the tenants of modernist rational planning and social engineering, only to reveal itself as an unsympathetic structure which bred poverty, crime and social dislocation. As Pruitt-Igoe failed to fulfill its ambition of providing a nurturing domestic environment, it was ultimately demolished in 1972.


While the negative aspects are emphasized in the Pruitt-Igoe scenario, it is possible to learn from this experience. Building on the lessons of Yamasaki’s design, contemporary architects are implementing new approaches to social housing such as those championed by Alejandro Aravena. His practice Elemental provides the components of housing that people would not be able to provide for themselves (structure, roof, kitchens and bathrooms) based on a customizable expandable model. This approach avoids the pitfalls of Pruitt-Igoe by engaging social housing issues with a realistic perspective that takes into account shifting social factors and accordingly allows for formal adaptability.


Erandi de Silva



One Response to “FAILURE”

  • E. Sean Bailey says:


    I didn’t think my take was positive at all. It takes massive failure for us to learn lessons, which essentially equates to massive amounts of death and suffering. The same can be said in the case of unsuccessful housing models, though the suffering is perhaps less painful but longer lasting.



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