Michael Bierut | Essays

When Design is a Matter of Life or Death

Poster for Citicorp Center, Dan Friedman for Anspach Grossman Portugal, 1975

You've taken on a design challenge and come up with a solution that's been widely admired and won you accolades. But a year or so later, you realize you made a mistake. There's something horribly wrong with your design. And it's not just something cosmetic — a badly resolved corner, some misspaced type — but a fundamental flaw that will almost certainly lead to catastrophic failure. And that failure will result not just in embarassment, or professional ruin, but death, the death of thousands of people.

You are the only person that knows that something's wrong. What would you do?

This sounds like a hypothetical question. But it's not. It's the question that structural engineer William LeMessurier faced on a lonely July weekend almost 30 years ago.

LeMessurier was the structural engineer for Citicorp Center, arguably the most important skyscraper built in Manhattan in the years of the 1970s recession. Most people who know this landmark know it for two things: its distinctive, diagonal crown, and the four towering columns centered on each of its sides that seem to levitate it above Lexington Avenue. Architect Hugh Stubbins deliberately moved the columns from the corners in order to accomodate St. Peter's Church, which had long stood on the site's northwestern edge. William Le Messurier and his engineers had to figure out how to make sure the building would stand up on this unusual base. Their solution, a series of diagonal braces and a rooftop damper to limit the structure's sway, was acclaimed for its elegance and innovation.

A year after the building's opening, LeMessurier recieved a call from a student working on a paper, asking about the unusual position of the columns. LeMessurier answered the question, but something about the conversation started him thinking. He revisited his calculations and began to realize that under certain wind conditions, the bracing might not be sufficient to stabilize the building. A series of seemingly trivial mistakes and oversights, none significant alone, had combined to create a potentially dangerous situation. His concern mounting, he consulted a fellow engineer named Alan Davenport, an authority on the effect that winds have on tall buildings. Davenport reexamined the data and confirmed his worst fears: as it was currently designed, sufficiently high winds could indeed knock down the Citicorp building. Those wind conditions, LeMessurier was told, occur once every 16 years.

The story of William LeMessurier and Citicorp Center was first told in a brilliant New Yorker article by Joe Morgenstern in 1995, "The Fifty-Nine-Story Crisis." In it, Morgenstern describes what LeMessurier faced as he realized that his greatest achievement was instead a disaster waiting to happen: "possible protracted litigation, probable bankruptcy, and professional disgrace." It was the last weekend in July. The height of hurricane season was approaching. He sat down in his summer house to try to figure out what to do. Morgenstern describes what happened next:

LeMessurier considered his options. Silence was one of them; only Davenport knew the full implications of what he had found, and he would not disclose them on his own. Suicide was another: if LeMessurier drove along the Maine Turnpike at a hundred miles an hour and steered into a bridge abutment, that would be that. But keeping silent required betting other people's lives against the odds, while suicide struck him as a coward's way out and — although he was passionate about nineteenth-century classical music — unconvincingly melodramatic. What seized him an instant later was entirely convincing, because it was so unexpected: an almost giddy sense of power. "I had information that nobody else in the world had," LeMessurier recalls. "I had power in my hands to effect extraordinary events that only I could initiate. I mean, sixteen years to failure — that was very simple, very clear-cut. I almost said, thank you, dear Lord, for making this problem so sharply defined that there's no choice to make."

LeMessurier returned to Boston and told the building's architect, his friend Hugh Stubbins, what he had discovered, that Stubbins's masterpiece was fatally flawed. As LeMessurier told Morgenstern, "he winced," but understood immediately what needed to be done. The two men went to New York and told John Reed and Walter Wriston, respectively Citicorp's executive vice-president and chairman, everything. "I have a real problem for you, sir," LeMessurier began.

Remarkably, and perhaps disarmed by the engineer's forthrightness, the bankers didn't waste time assigning blame or brooding about how to spin the situation, but simply listened to LeMessurier's ideas about how the building could be fixed, and committed themselves to do whatever it took to set things right. With Leslie Robertson, the engineer of the World Trade Center, the team devised a plan to methodically reinforce all the bracing joints a floor at a time. The repairs would take the better part of three months, with work happening around the clock. Evacuation plans were put in place; three decades ago it was unimaginable that a building would fall down in Manhattan, and no one knew how extensive the damage might be. In the midst of it all, on Labor Day weekend, a hurricane began bearing down on the northeast. It veered out to sea before the building could be tested. All of these events were largely unknown until Morgenstern's New Yorker story, because of a bit of luck for LeMessurier and Citicorp: New York's newspapers went on strike the week the repairs began.

By mid-September, the building was fully secure and the crisis had passed. In the aftermath, Citicorp agreed to hold the architect, Hugh Stubbins, harmless. And, amazingly, although there were accounts that the repairs cost more than eight million dollars (the full amount has never been disclosed), the bank opted to settle with LeMessurier for two million, the limit of his professional liability insurance. The engineer was not ruined. In fact, as Morgenstern observes, LeMessurier "emerged with his reputation not merely unscathed but enhanced." His exemplary courage and candor set the tone. As Arthur Nusbaum, the building's project manager, put it, "It started with a guy who stood up and said, 'I got a problem, I made the problem, let's fix the problem." It almost seemed that as a result everyone involved behaved admirably.

We designers call ourselves problem solvers, but we tend to be picky about what problems we choose to solve. The hardest ones are the ones of our own making. They're seldom a matter of life or death, and for maybe for that reason they're easier to evade, ignore, or leave to someone else. I face them all the time, and it's a testimony to one engineer's heroism that when I do, I often ask myself one question. It's one I recommend to everyone: what would William LeMessurier do?

Posted in: Architecture, Business

Comments [45]

Michael, you raise a good point. While I've never been faced with building collapse and potential casualities, addressing daily design problems with the same fervor as LeMessurier is something we should all pride ourselves on as designers. We take information, products, etc and make them functional and beautiful. Designing anything, be it a building, a car, a book or a website, are one in the same. If we overlook the most elementary aspects of the problem, where does that leave us?

BadDesignKills is also based on this premise taken from a story of a German airport where, during a fire, people could not figure out how to get out of the building as the signage was designed poorly. Sometimes, we, as non-structurial engineers, are also making life and death decisions, too. (Some would even argue that making a cigarette package more appealing. Or designing the layout for gun magazine also falls into this category of life and death design. But perhaps not as directly in terms of specific design decisions.)

Fantastic story. As a NY designer I recently passed by the building last week and wondered about its column structure.

Michael, thanks for the post; this is one of my favorite design stories of all time. I think the "LeMessurier standard" is one to keep in mind when working with any vendor -- the true measure of a partner comes not in perfect execution, but on how he or she deals with problems. Anyone can make mistakes; what matters is how they rectify them.

BTW, here's a link to that Düsseldorf airport fire story and Meta Design's role in the aftermath.
Jose Nieto

What a great story. It gives me faith in people and - *gasp!* - corporations. LeMessurier behaved the way we all should behave, every day.
Andrew Twigg

A fascinating story. It brings to mind Henry Petroski's To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design. Although Petroski lacks Morgenstern's expository gift, he does make a convincing quantitative argument that (in pure engineering terms at least) more is learned from failure than from success. He shows how hundreds and even thousands of design flaws go undiscovered in the structure that endures, while every aspect of a failed design is analyzed in a variety of ways. This intense scrutiny yields crucial data that improves the design of subsequent buildings and which would have otherwise gone undiscovered. The suspense of LeMessurier's story is clearly preferable to the tragedy of Petroski's examples. In the Kansas City Hyatt Regency disaster, which he covers in great detail, over a hundred people died for the potentially life-saving data that came from studying the failure of the hotel's walkways.
dmitri siegel


Fantastic article.

Your last paragraph is what really struck a chord with me. Truly puts into perspective about the how trivial it seems when some of us grit our teeth (or avoid altogether) when admitting to our own mistakes (in comparison to what William LeMessurier was faced with).

the current citigroup logo, with the sharp Interstate "t" (for Travelers) seems to pay homage to the distinctive, sharp crown of the 601 lex building


Dear Michael,

the point that you are making in this story is a point so pointless that it closely resembles a broken pencil. I do not understand how not to point my finger towards the pointy aftermath of the point in this story.

It is a point that has been raised in the presence of a pointless perspective which administers its heavy burden of guilt upon those whose fault it never could have been. Since the early times man has been saying; 'all your base are belong to us' and it is this perception of the evil empire that Citicorp understands, and frequently corrupts, through its media fanbase in the form of bloggers and emo-loggers that wander through the woods.

Ask not wether the point should follow the sentence, ask wether the sentence should be written at all.

What is your point?
That the building should not have even be built in the first place? And are you saying that Michael Bierut is one of Citicorp's wanderers of corruption?
I am not sure what you are trying to communicate, it is unclear.
Nathan Philpot

A very interesting story.
I am hesitant, however, to applaud someone for making what I, and most people, would see right from the beginning as the proper (and only) decision. Should we applaud LeMessurier for not killing himself? No. We should simply be glad that someone with that piece of information acted as any human should. Just because someone didn't make a selfish decision doesn't make them selfless.

There are people much more worthy of the "What would ... do?" line of thought.

It's one thing to make a mistake and go along and not realize it. It's entirely another to know it and do the right thing. There's a sense of integrity in this story that I can't help but admire. Not only on the part of LeMessurier, but also with the bank in how they financially handled what could have been a very messy situation (lawsuits, blame). Positive problem solving skills focused on the issue rather than those at fault is key.

In response to Susan's comments: Are you proposing the building should have never been built?

Is that like saying a book with an editorial error or a typo should have never been printed? Or a magazine with a factual error should have never been printed? While we strive for perfection in our work and we have processes to avoid those mistakes, sometimes they happen regardless of our precautions.

We're human. It's how we deal with our shortcomings that makes us more authentic. We own up to our mistakes, admit them, correct them, apologize, ask for forgiveness... whatever is needed to rectify the situation and we move on. If we miss this aspect of humanity, we're missing something crucial in our professional and personal lives.

Well said; truth still exists.

Excellent bit of writing and an uplifting story. Thanks for sharing it with us.

In a period of epidemic deresponsibilization, and its resulting cynicism and distrust, it is critical to look to examples of integrity and honesty as models for our behavior. LeMessurier's dilemma is a compelling metaphor for humanity in all of our dealings—all constructs and deconstructs of civilization. Thank you for reminding all of us to question the integrity of all of our actions.

SUPERB story.

I am waiting for a film of this story, one starring, at the low end, Tom Hanks as LeMessurier, or, at the high end, Goeffrey Rush.

For the female interest, again at the low end, Naomi Watts, or, at the high end, perhaps a cgi Anna Magnani.

Thanks again for a FABULOUS story.


Good article.
The John Hancock Building in Boston required rather more significant retrofitting to make it safe, after opening in 1976. Problems included a nauseating sway (solved by a "tuned mass damper"), falling 500 windows and, most pertinent to this thread, the threat of tipping in strong winds.
I'm writing from memory, aided by some additional information at answers.com.
John McVey

susan's comments are "pointless" and opaque -- perhaps she missed the lesson in this story and, in frustration, wrote that gibberish.

i applaud lemessurier for his actions. as a student at harvard's graduate school of design in the early 90s, lemessurier cited this story in his lectures as a lesson to others -- to act honorably and honestly.

I am hesitant, however, to applaud someone for making what I, and most people, would see right from the beginning as the proper (and only) decision. Should we applaud LeMessurier for not killing himself? No. We should simply be glad that someone with that piece of information acted as any human should. Just because someone didn't make a selfish decision doesn't make them selfless.

What has impressed me about this story from the first time I heard it was not that LeMessurier told Citicorp about his mistake, but how he did it. No excuses, no hedging, no shading the truth to minimize his role. Just the plain and simple route: admit the mistake and take full responsibility for it, and face the consequences head on.

Sam, if you think this is commonplace behavior, you live in a different world than I do.
Michael Bierut

I am struck by two things: first Le Messurier should not be applauded for what was the only thing to do. It is surely a sign of our times that doing the correct thing is made heroic because most of us are doing the opposite, for example the current American President has admitted that the admistration has made some mistakes, and yes his poll numbers went up slightly after saying that. Number two, at a party before starting the grad program at CalArts this year someone said to me that I shouldn't fret so much about the role of design because after all I was not curing cancer; I dismissed this remark of course because I realized that if designed books on medicine in a meaningful and engaging manner that I would be part of the cure.

This is indeed a good story, my only remark is the slight overdramatising tone, especially when he considers his options (3)
What LeMessurier did at the end was part of his job as a structural engineer - and I'm sure that's the reason why Citicorp took it so matter of fact. Not really a choice between 3 options, just one option available if you take your chosen profession seriously.

To ask one's self, "What would William LeMessurier do?", assumably draws attention to the notion that he acted on good conscience. It does not account for the fact that he had little choice but to face his responsibilities (unless you deem the murder of self or others as choices). He faced them admirably, but shouldn't everyone? He set a good example. Undoubtedly. His extreme situation simplified his choice of actions.

But we should perhaps ask ourselves why it is that we need examples to tell us what is right.

Undoubtedly, in matters of self-preservation, the unethical decisions of humankind outweigh the ethical ones. Someone once told me that we do not live in a fair world, but in a just world. Unless one considers survival of the fittest to be the best rule of the land (given the contrary, that our will can act against our instinct), it is impossible to believe either premise in bearing witness to the multitude of infractions that surround us. There is a lack of good example.

Most people can walk away from their mistakes with a "better luck next time" attitude. No harm, no foul. This may translate however to harms done off camera, to the non-audiences, the uncounted, the inconsequential. A no vote is a vote for the victor.

However, those with the attitude that every element matters may be more likely to run with the ethic that every person matters. We will never know the consequences of the decisions LeMessurier did not make, nor can we assume that he made the right decision from a sense of duty to his fellow man. In matters of conscience all options may be equally discernable, but only one is viable. Still, by most any standards, he did the best thing for everyone involved, visible and invisible. Shouldn't we all?

Spelling error, paragraph 7:

"I had power in my hands to affect extraordinary events that only I could initiate."

Raymond, that use of effect is not a spelling mistake. To effect, as in, to bring about.

I stand corrected. Thank you.

As some other commentors have stated, LeMessurier should not be commended for simply doing his job. "Brave" should be reserved for those who go beyond the call of duty.
Erika Froh

Though not being in his shoes, and knowing my own faults, it is no small task too own up to one's mistakes.

No excuses, no hedging, no shading the truth to minimize his role.
Sam, if you think this is commonplace behavior, you live in a different world than I do.

As unfortunate as it is, I certainly don't think LeMessurier's actions were commonplace. I just fail to see why he is put on a pedestal for taking the blame for something that was purely his error.

I suppose I've never much been a fan of the 'What would So-andSo do?" phrase. How about "What did my mother teach me to do?" or "What would I, at my most noble and humble, do?" when presented with a situation like this; or do we generally feel too overwhelmed when matching our own conscience with what seem to be difficult positions?

As told by Morgenstern, LeMessurier's forthright explanation instantly helped to put Stubbins and Wriston on the right path. Thoughts matter. Intent matters.

A sidebar: the architectural design of Citicorp was often written up as creative genius at the time, because there were no other buildings like it. But the building was originally designed for a Wall Street site, and then recycled when that building wasn't built. I don't remember if the first was designed by Stubbins or someone else like Ed Barnes.

The diagonal top was supposed to be a functional result of a decision to put solar panels on the top. But the panels were axed and the diagonal stayed.

My point? The myths of Modernism were so mythic that they often prevailed over fact.
john massengale

As unfortunate as it is, I certainly don't think LeMessurier's actions were commonplace. I just fail to see why he is put on a pedestal for taking the blame for something that was purely his error.

I think it is because he did not pass the buck and owned up to his mistake—something that is unusual.

As I write this I am listening to a radio broadcast about the Enron trial. The former CEO has pleaded not quilty saying he didn't know about the fraud going on in within his own company. He has tried to passed the buck to underlings who supposedly knew more about the company than he did.

I don't think anyone is really surprised at this finger pointing.

We learned about this incident in a senior engineering design class. Some additional information is that the mistake was not LeMessurier's. The plans were redone by the contractors who was not completely familiar with the project to reduce labor costs. The joints for the diagonal braces that can be seen at the vary top of the picture were under "redesigned" for their original purpose which was to be a load bearing column as opposed to a stiffening truss member. LeMessurier learned about the change only well after the building was completed.

He is to be commended because he fulfilled his responsibilities as a professional engineer and in addition he took responsibility for fixing a mistake that was not his own. An interesting side bar is that despite his insurance company eventually paying 2 million dollars they lowered his premiums.

Man, after a seemingly hard day of publication design this seems humbling. Thanks!

So many corporate leaders (and people in powerful or important positions) take the low road when it serves their interests of self-preservation. Mind you, LeMessurier did not. I'm still missing why he deserves to be put on a pedestal for being noble when it should be commonplace to be a decent human being.

I agree with Massengale that there is far too much myth surrounding the nobility of Modernism. The truth is that Modernism erased and removed so much of what is human from the arts, and traded it for sensationalism and self-aggrandisement.

This isn't the first time I've heard this story, but this time it occurred to me that LeMessurier and his story are being converted into a modern fable:

"Own up to your mistakes, and things won't be that bad. In fact, you might end up better off." (no doubt Aesop could make that snappier!)

Fables need to be about situations that we can relate to. They set standards for moral behavior and relate rewards and punishments that may follow depending on the paths that we take. But it's the very ordinariness of LeMesurrier's moral dilemma that makes it a story worth recounting.

Life (in any context) above all. Otherwise don't design.

look fr studioLDA
look and sook yin

LeMessurier should be commended for stepping forward with his discovery despite the fact that it could've ended his professional career, he might have faced jail time for it, etc. He made a morally correct choice and didn't resort to any finger-pointing, unlike the Enron CEO (in leslie's example.) LeMessurier solely accepted responsibility for it.

But in hindsight 20/20, I have to ask this: seeing as he is obviously a trained professional, with an established career and reputation, how could he have POSSIBLY made such a mistake? I understand the old "everyone makes mistakes" adage, but I think that at this level, it's unimagineable that any professional could make such a mistake with potentially horrific consequences.
Nikita Prokhorov

But in hindsight 20/20, I have to ask this: seeing as he is obviously a trained professional, with an established career and reputation, how could he have POSSIBLY made such a mistake?

As I said in the original post, there were actually a series of miscalculations and mistakes, all of which are described in greater detail in the original New Yorker article.

One of these was something that Craig mentions in his comment above: the substitution of bolted braces for welded braces, which was done without LeMessurier's knowlege as it was standard practice in similar tall buildings. LeMessurier could have easily blamed his steel supplier and local consultant for the whole thing, since they had signed off on this substitution.

I am convinced that 99% of us in his situation would have figured out a way to pass the buck; I certainly would have seriously considered it myself, I'm ashamed to say. That LeMessurier didn't is what I really admire.
Michael Bierut

This reminds me of a situation I faced in my first job out of school. While no lives were at risk, business was. As a young art director for KKB Advertising in Atlanta, a copywriter and I had worked very hard on concepts for a pitch. I can't remember if it was for new business or a current client. The client didn't go for the campaign, even though we and our boss, CD-President Dick Bennett knew it was a winner. Later, Dick called me and the CW into his office and apologized. He took blame for the failure, telling us he knew it was great work, but that he did not prepare for the pitch, and that's why the client didn't go for it. The CW and I were speechless. I had already admired Dick Bennett, but after that, I nearly worshipped him. Twenty years later when faced with sticky situations, I think "What's the right thing to do?" And I think back to Dick Bennett's example, and the answer is clear.

It is almost always harder to do the right thing, but it is still the right thing to do.

Engineering as a whole should be done on the basis of ethics. The profession should be viewed as a chance to serve mankind better. A very good article .
- Badri
Badri Sugavanam

In design, it seems that an arduous trial of ethics and moral responsibility is more commonplace in sitatuations where one is charged with the opposite burden of LeMessurier's; to fix the proverbial unbroken.

there was a bbc (i think) documentary about this a few years back - a great story.


Why was the identity of the student never revealed?

Diane, in the original New Yorker account, it said that the student's name was "lost in the swirl of subsequent events."
Michael Bierut

Doesn't it seem highly unusual that the "student" has never come forward?

Michael Bierut says that LeMessurier could have blamed his steel supplier and local consultant. By "local consultant" do you mean LeMessurier's New York office or LeMessurier's joint-venture partner?
Fred Shapiro

Doesn't it seem highly unusual that the "student" has never come forward?
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