Buildings That Withstood Natural Disasters

Though they were fierce, the biggest disasters of the past 100 years have in no way conquered the wits of architects and engineers. Here’s a quick tour of eight projects, large and small, that managed to outwit the elements.

A rendering of HOK’s new design for the Old Mint, which will house a museum devoted to the history of San Francisco and the Bay Area. Image courtesy of HOK

When Alfred B. Mullet designed the United States Mint in San Francisco in the early 1850s, he opted not to use the deep-driven piles that stabilized most of the city’s buildings at the time. Instead, Mullett hatched his own custom base-isolation system. Underneath the mint sits a compacted layer of soil and sand one story deep, topped by a thick mat slab stitched together from old railroad ties and covered in concrete. When the earthquake struck San Francisco in 1906, Mullet’s base-isolation system acted like a boat, allowing the mint to effectively ride out the seismic disturbance instead of absorbing its force. Much of the surrounding neighborhood crumbled, but the mint slid just three feet and remained standing.

New York architects Warren and Wetmore, who were on the architectural team that designed Grand Central Station at the turn of the last century, completed the Jazz Age Providence Biltmore Hotel in Rhode Island in 1922. The brick structure survived the New England Hurricane of 1938, which flooded the building and sent streams of water down the elevator shafts. Couches floated through the English-style barroom, swept through the lobby and landed just shy of the revolving doors. A plaque in the lobby marks the high water mark.

The Great Alaskan earthquake of 1964—a whopping 8.2 on the Richter Scale—destroyed a 30-block radius in Anchorage but spared the Wendler Building, a lone Victorian structure built as a store and residence in 1915.

Inspired by biomimicry and the durability of natural forms like shells, enterprising Florida resident Mark Sigler built his offbeat yet impressively sturdy dome home in Pensacola Beach to withstand 300-mile-per-hour winds. He enlisted the late architect Jonathan Zimmerman to design the solid concrete house, which is further reinforced by five miles of steel. When Hurricane Ivan hit in 2004, the storm flattened the houses of Sigler’s neighbors but left the dome intact (albeit with structural damage). As Sigler remarked in a segment for the Weather Channel, “We’ve got pieces of other houses bouncing off our house.”

The Baiturrahim Mosque in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, survived the 2004 tsunami, which leveled all the buildings between the mosque and the shore of the Indian Ocean. Below is a photo of the building during reconstruction.

 

Photo: U.S. State Department

Designed by the architecture firm KCCT, the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, suffered remarkably little damage in the 2010 earthquake.

The floodgate in Fudai.

Hooray for public works. Back in the 1970s, Fudai, Japan, Mayor Kotaku Wamura built a 51-foot-high floodgate for the equivalent of $30 million in today’s dollars. Despite criticism of the project at the time, Wamura pressed on, having seen the destruction wrought by an earthquake-triggered tsunami in 1933. The combination of the floodgate and a high seawall behind the village’s fishing port protected Fudai during the 2011 tsunami.

Photo: Architecture for Humanity

This women’s center in Khairpur, Pakistan, survived a monsoon in August thanks to its resilient bamboo construction. The center was designed by architect Yasmeen Lari with support from the Heritage Foundation and Architecture for Humanity.

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