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13 Straight Facts About the Leaning Tower of Pisa

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The Leaning Tower of Pisa may be the world's greatest spot for a tourist photo, but there's a lot more to this centuries-old icon than lighthearted images of your friends and family "holding up" the tower. Here's everything you need to know about Italy's most beloved architectural accident.

1. IT TOOK TWO CENTURIES TO BUILD IT.

Construction on a campanile, or bell tower, to accompany the public cathedral in the Italian riverside city of Pisa broke ground in August 1173. By 1178, workers had made it to the third story of the structure, which was already tilting slightly to the north. Military conflicts with other Italian states would soon halt progress on the tower, which would not resume until 1272. This time, construction only remained underway for 12 years before another war again stopped the work. A final wave of construction picked up again in the early 14th century, concluding with the installation of a bell chamber in 1372.

2. THE TOWER LEANS BECAUSE OF ILL-CONCEIVED DESIGN PLANS. 

While some architectural follies are the product of unforeseeable bouts of bad luck, the Leaning Tower of Pisa’s signature tilt could have been avoided with better planning. A shallow foundation and the soft ground of Pisa—composed of sand, clay, and deposits from the Tuscan rivers Arno and Serchio—were too unstable to support the building even in the early stages of its construction. Amazingly, the builders noticed this error early in the two-century construction project—after the addition of a second story to the tower, the ground began to give, prompting that infamous slant. 

3. AT ONE POINT, THE TOWER’S LEAN SWITCHED DIRECTIONS.

When construction resumed in 1272, the additional developments did not exactly help the tower’s posture. The stacking of additional stories atop the existing three jostled the building’s center of gravity, causing a reversal in the direction of its tilt. As the tower accrued its fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh stories, the once northward-leaning structure began to tip further and further south

4. THE LEAN KEPT GETTING PROGRESSIVELY WORSE.

As time passed, the ground only further weakened beneath the tower’s heft. An early 0.2-degree tilt increased gradually over the subsequent centuries, maxing out at 5.5 degrees—or with the top 15 feet south of the bottom—by 1990. Over the next decade, a team of engineers leveled the soil beneath the tower and introduced anchoring mechanisms in an effort to rectify the landmark’s nearly catastrophic lean. The project allotted the tower a more secure stance, but it did not prevent continued tipping. By 2008, however, a second go at balancing the foundational soil halted the tower’s continued slouching for the first time ever. 

5. THE ENGINEER WHO OVERSAW THIS RECLAMATION PROJECT WASN’T ALWAYS AN EXPERT IN THE FIELD.

John Burland wasn’t exactly a prime candidate for a project like solidifying the Leaning Tower of Pisa on paper. Burland admits that soil mechanics, the area of engineering that played a pivotal role in the stabilizing of the tower, was his worst subject during his undergraduate studies at University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He ultimately overcame his aversion to this subject to become a professor at Imperial College London (and saved the Leaning Tower of Pisa from complete collapse, of course). 

6. THE TOWER COULD STILL RESUME TILTING. 

Barring additional efforts to prevent future leaning, the tower is predicted to remain stable only for the next 200 years. If everything else remains constant, the ground should begin giving way again in the early 23rd century, allowing for the tilt to slowly resume

7. THE LEANING TOWER OF PISA IS JUST ONE OF SEVERAL LEANING TOWERS IN PISA. 

A number of other Pisani structures suffer foundational instability thanks to the river city’s soft grounds. Among these are San Nicola, a 12th century church located about half a mile south of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and San Michele degli Scalzi, an 11th century church about two miles east of the pair. While San Nicola, whose base is rooted beneath the earth, leans only mildly, San Michele degli Scalzi boasts a substantial 5-degree tilt. 

8. OTHER TOWERS HAVE CHALLENGED ITS FAMED LEAN.

No building on Earth is more famous for its diagonal posture than the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but several others have challenged its superlative slant. In 2009, the Leaning Tower of Surhuusen, a German steeple erected between the 14th and 15th centuries, officially “out-leaned” its Pisani rival—Guinness record keepers calculated that the Surhuusen tower’s tilt extended a full 1.2 degrees further than that of Pisa’s, which had been modified from its pre-1990s peak of 5.5 degrees to a less-drastic 3.97 degrees. Another German tower, the town of Bad Frankenhausen’s 14th century church Oberkirche, and the shorter of the Two Towers of Bologna have also bested the Pisa tower with 4.8-degree and 4-degree leans, respectively. 

9. MUSSOLINI TRIED TO FIX THE TOWER. HE ONLY MADE IT WORSE. 

In 1934, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini declared the crooked attraction was a pockmark on his nation’s reputation and allocated resources for straightening the building. Mussolini’s men drilled hundreds of holes into the tower’s foundation and pumped in tons of grout in a misguided effort to rectify its tilt. Instead, the heavy cement caused the base of the tower to sink deeper into the soil, resulting in an even more severe lean. 

10. THE TOWER WAS A MILITARY BASE DURING WORLD WAR II. 

Even though the tower’s distinctive silhouette would seem to make it an easy target, the German army felt it was a prime lookout point during World War II because the tall tower provided optimal surveillance over the surrounding flat terrain. 

11. AMERICAN TROOPS DECIDED NOT TO DESTROY THE TOWER. 

The German use of the tower nearly succeeded where gravity has failed in bringing the tower down. When the advancing U.S. Army was charged with demolishing all enemy buildings and resources in 1944, soldiers were too spellbound by the iconic tower’s aesthetic charms to call in artillery to bring it down. As detailed by veteran Leon Weckstein in a 2000 interview with The Guardian, the American troops braving the terrains of Axis-occupied Pisa were so entranced by the sight of the Leaning Tower that they couldn’t call for the volley of fire. Weckstein recalls preparing to attack the Nazi base before ultimately retreating and leaving the beautiful tower intact. 

12. GALILEO MAY NOT HAVE DROPPED A CANNONBALL FROM THE TOP. 

Among Renaissance physicist Galileo Galilei’s most famous achievements was the discovery that gravity’s effect on an object is the same regardless of its mass. This epiphany is said to have hit Galileo atop the Leaning Tower of Pisa, from where he allegedly dropped a cannonball and a musket ball in 1589. The scientist’s biography, penned by disciple Vincenzo Viviani, remains the sole official assertion that such an experiment took place. 

Modern scholars like Paolo Palmieri and James Robert Brown argue that the Leaning Tower of Pisa test existed only as a thought experiment of Galileo’s—devised perhaps at a much later chapter in his life—and was never carried out but was inflated by Viviani to buff the grandeur of Galileo’s discovery. 

13. A ROCK DOME IN ANTARCTICA IS NAMED AFTER THE TOWER. 

Despite having been discovered by the French Antarctic Expedition, a particularly hefty rock dome in the seventh continent’s Geologie Archipelago is named for Italy’s prized tower. The 27-meter-long formation, first documented on Rostand Island in 1951, goes by the nickname of “Tour de Pise” thanks to its resemblance to the building.

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Peter Macdiarmid, Getty Images
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Long-Closed Part of Westminster Abbey to Open to the Public for the First Time in 700 Years
The triforium in 2009
The triforium in 2009
Peter Macdiarmid, Getty Images

On June 11, 2018, visitors to London's Westminster Abbey will get a look at a section of the historic church that has been off-limits for 700 years. That’s when the triforium, located high above the abbey floor, will open to the general public for the first time as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries, according to Condé Nast Traveler.

The 13th-century space, located 70 feet above the nave floor, had previously been used for abbey storage. (One architecture critic who visited before the renovation described it as a “glorified attic.”) After a $32.5 million renovation, it will now become a museum with killer views.

The view from the triforium looking down onto the rest of Westminster Abbey
The view from the triforium looking down toward the ground floor of the abbey
Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

To access the area, which looks out over the nave and altar, architects built a new tower, the abbey’s first major addition since 1745. The 80-foot-tall, window-lined structure will provide brand-new vantage points to look out on surrounding areas of Westminster. Inside the triforium, the windows of the galleries look out onto the Houses of Parliament and St. Margaret’s church, and visitors will be able to walk around the upper mezzanine and look down onto the ground floor of the abbey below.

The museum itself will show off objects from Westminster Abbey’s history, such as a 17th-century coronation chair for Mary II and an altarpiece from Henry III’s reign, when the triforium was first constructed. Oh, and it will also display Prince William and Kate Middleton’s marriage license, for those interested in more modern royal history.

[h/t Condé Nast Traveler]

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Steinar Skaar / Statens vegvesen
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A Look at One of Norway's Most Beautiful Public Bathrooms
Steinar Skaar / Statens vegvesen
Steinar Skaar / Statens vegvesen

In Norway, beautiful architecture isn’t limited to new museums and opera houses. The country also has some incredible bathrooms, thanks to a program called the National Tourist Routes, which commissions architects to design imaginative, beautiful rest stops and lookout points to encourage travel in some of the country’s more remote areas.

One of the latest projects to be unveiled, as Dezeen alerted us, is a high-design commode in the northern Norwegian municipality of Gildeskål. The newly renovated site located along the Norwegian Scenic Route Helgelandskysten, called Ureddplassen, was recently opened to the public.

Bench seating outside the restroom, with mountains in the background
Lars Grimsby / State Road Administration

A view up the stairs of the amphitheater toward steep mountains
Steinar Skaar / Statens vegvesen

Designed by the Oslo-based designers Haugen/Zohar Architects and the landscape architects Landskapsfabrikken AS, the site includes an amphitheater, a viewing platform, and of course, a beautiful restroom. The area is a popular place to view the Northern Lights in the fall and winter and the midnight sun in the summer, so it sees a fair amount of traffic.

The site has been home to a monument honoring victims of the 1943 sinking of a World War II submarine called the Uredd since 1987, and the designers added a new marble base to the monument as part of this project.

A view of the monument to the soldiers lost in the sinking of the Uredd
Steinar Skaar / Statens vegvesen

Now, travelers and locals alike can stop off the highway for a quick pee in the restroom, with its rolling concrete and glass design, then plop down on the steps of the amphitheater to gaze at the view across the Norwegian Sea. It’s one rest stop you’ll actually want to rest at.

[h/t Dezeen]

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