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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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Luke Hayes, Asif Khan/Getty Images
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architecture
Vantablack Pavilion at the Winter Olympics Mimics the Darkness of Space
Luke Hayes, Asif Khan/Getty Images
Luke Hayes, Asif Khan/Getty Images

British company Surrey NanoSystems disrupted the color spectrum when it debuted Vantablack: the darkest artificial substance ever made. The material is dark enough to absorb virtually all light waves, making 3D objects look like endless black voids. It was originally designed for technology, but artists and designers have embraced the unique shade. Now, Dezeen reports that British architect Asif Khan has brought Vantablack to the Winter Olympics.

His temporary pavilion at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games in South Korea has been dubbed the darkest building on Earth. The 33-foot-tall structure has been coated with Vantablack VBx2, a version of Vantablack pigment that comes in a spray can.

The building’s sides curve inward like shadowboxes. To break up the all-consuming blackness, Khan outfitted the walls with rods. White lights at the ends of the sticks create the effect of stars scattered across an endless night sky.

Child next to wall painted to look like the night sky.
Luke Hayes, Asif Khan/Getty Images

Khan told Dezeen that the piece is meant to give “the impression of a window cut into space.” He was only able to realize this vision after contacting the scientists behind Vantablack. He told them he wanted to use the color to coat a building, something the pigment wasn’t designed for originally. Sculptor Anish Kapoor securing exclusive rights to artistic use of the color in 2016 further complicated his plans. The solution was the sprayable version: Vantablack VBx2 is structurally (and therefore legally) different from the original pigment and better suited for large-scale projects.

The pavilion was commissioned by Hyundai to promote their hydrogen fuel cell technology. The space-themed exterior is a nod to the hydrogen in stars. Inside, a white room filled with sprinklers is meant to represent the hydrogen found in water.

The area will be open to visitors during the Winter Olympics, which kick off in Pyeongchang, South Korea on Friday, February 9.

[h/t Dezeen]

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Shari Austrian
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Design
You Can Order a Stunningly Detailed LEGO Replica of Your House on Etsy
Shari Austrian
Shari Austrian

LEGO blocks can be used to construct fictional starships and works of abstract art, but there's something comforting in replicating what's familiar to you. That's the concept behind Little Brick Lane, an Etsy shop that promises to custom-build detailed LEGO models of real homes.

Designer Shari Austrian tells Apartment Therapy that the idea came to her when her family was building their real-life house. Her twin boys had recently gotten her interested in LEGO, so she decided to construct a scaled-down, blocky replica to match their new home. She enjoyed the project enough to launch a business around LEGO architecture on Etsy at the end of 2017.

Austrian bases her designs off interior and exterior photos of each house, and if they're available, architectural plans. Over eight to 10 weeks, she constructs the model using LEGO pieces she orders to match the building design perfectly, recreating both the inside and outside of the house in the utmost detail.

To request a custom LEGO abode of your own, you can reach out to Austrian through her Etsy shop, but warning: It won't come cheap. A full model will cost you at least $2500 (the exact price is based on the square footage of your home). That price covers the cost of the materials Austrian invests in each house, which can add up quick. "The average LEGO piece costs approximately 10 cents," she tells Mental Floss, and her models are made up of tens of thousands of pieces. But if you're looking for something slightly cheaper, she also offers exterior-only models for $1500 and up.

For your money, you can be confident that Austrian won't skimp on any details. As you can see in the images below, every feature of your house—from the appliances in your kitchen to the flowers in your yard—will be immortalized in carefully chosen plastic bricks.

A bedroom made of LEGO

A kitchen model made of LEGO

The exterior of a house made of LEGO

[h/t Apartment Therapy]

All images courtesy of Shari Austrian.

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