New York City’s L train carries about 400,000 passengers a day, linking Manhattan and Brooklyn and bringing passengers along 14th Street, under the East River, and through the neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Bushwick, Ridgewood, Brownsville, and Canarsie. About 225,000 of these passengers pass through the Canarsie Tunnel, a two-tube cast iron rail tunnel built below the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn in 1924. Like many other New York City road and subway tunnels, the Canarsie Tunnel was badly damaged when Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge inundated the tubes with million of gallons of salt water. Six years later, the impending closure of the tunnel is motivating New Yorkers to develop their own ambitious infrastructure ideas.
San Francisco’s Millennium Tower is sinking. Since its completion in 2009, the 58-story, 645-foot tall residential building has settled 16 inches and tilted perhaps 2 inches to the northwest. Since the foundation issues came to light in August 2016, the vertiginous ultra-luxury highrise has become the subject of outrage, ridicule, and at least two pieces of pending litigation.
Nothing that we build is static. Our office towers, apartment complexes, and single family homes move in response to loads applied by the environment. Buildings sway in the wind, expand and contract in response to temperature changes, and shift with the land upon which they rest. In most scenarios, these deflections are so minuscule that the occupants never even notice. Millennium Tower happens to be a large enough project with a severe enough problem that the whole world can’t help but gawk.
In foundation design, not all terra is firma. While a one or two story wood-framed building can be built safely with a shallow foundation on crummy soil, a major skyscraper requires a foundation that can transfer extremely high loads into the earth. But the strata below our city streets can consist of anything from sand to clay to solid rock, and many cities, including San Francisco, have infilled former marshes and bays with soil in order to expand their coastlines and generate valuable real estate. Millennium Tower was built in South of Market, a neighborhood that mostly used to belong to San Francisco Bay.
If the United States has a national architectural form, it is the skyscraper. The notion of building a tower to the heavens is as old as Genesis, but it took some brash 19th century Americans to develop that fanciful idea into tangible, profitable buildings. Although we dressed up our early skyscrapers in Old World styles (the Met Life Tower as an Italian campanile, the Woolworth Building as a French Gothic cathedral), most foreigners agreed that the skyscraper suited only our misfit nation. For decades, Americans were alone in building them. Even those European modernists who dreamed of gleaming towers along Friedrichstraße and Boulevard de Sébastopol had to cross the Atlantic for a chance to act on their ambitions. By the start of World War II, 147 of the 150 tallest habitable buildings on the planet were located in the United States.
No building style better represented America’s industriousness, monomaniacal greed, disregard of tradition, and eagerness to attempt feats that more established cultures considered obscene. And while those indelicate traits prompted Americans to develop the skyscraper, it was our openness and multiculturalism that brought us our greatest skyscraper builder: a Bangladeshi Muslim immigrant named Fazlur Rahman Khan.
Khan was born on April 3rd, 1929 in Dhaka, Bangladesh (Dacca, British India at the time). His father, a mathematics instructor, cultivated young Fazlur’s interest in technical subjects and encouraged him to pursue a degree at Calcutta’s Bengal Engineering College. He excelled in his studies there and, after graduating, won a Fulbright Scholarship that brought him to the University of Illinois. In the United States, Khan studied structural engineering and engineering mechanics, earning two master’s degrees and a PhD in just three years. After a detour in Pakistan, Khan returned to the United States and was hired as an engineer in the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), one of the most prominent architecture and engineering firms in the world.
Though he was born in a nation with no history of highrise construction, Dr. Fazlur Rahman Khan had worked his way to a position where he would revolutionize the field of structural engineering and build America’s proudest landmarks.
Suspension bridges are far and away the target of choice in America’s action blockbusters. In just the past three years, the Golden Gate Bridge has been destroyed by a Kaiju, Godzilla, a Skynet-initiated nuclear blast, and a tsunami. Americans don’t build real bridges anymore, or maintain the ones that we have, but we sure love to blow them up in movies.
There is logic here: A disaster scene involving a famous bridge serves both to root the film in the real world and to demonstrate the enormity and the immediacy of the threat. The unmaking of these huge structures shocks us because many bridges have gained an aura of permanence in our collective consciousness. Although we know when the Brooklyn Bridge was built and who built it, we feel like it has always been there and always will be. The destruction of our familiar human topography is even more disturbing than the deaths of the CGI victims, and I’m not just saying that as a misanthrope who loves bridges.
However, in all of the planning, storyboarding, rendering, and compositing of these special effects shots, nobody pauses to consider how suspension bridges actually behave. I can accept messianic alien orphan superheroes and skyscraper-sized battle robots, but I will not stand for inaccurate portrayals of structural mechanics. It’s fine to bend the laws of physics if the plot warrants it, but most suspension bridge mistakes are so needless and stupid that their only function seems to be irritating engineers.