Inclining towards icon status
Leaning tower of Pisa / Picture: Mogens Johansen

Throughout time man has built magnificent buildings and monuments that have become major tourist attractions. The pyramids in Egypt, temples such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Machu Picchu in Peru, churches, classic European architecture as well as more modern architecture such as the Sydney Opera house, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai all draw many thousands of tourists who admire the engineering accomplishment, design and craftsmanship of the structures.

It is less common that an engineering stuff-up becomes a famous tourist attraction. The leaning tower of Pisa would have to be one of the best-known examples.

Tourist flock to this iconic bell tower, not so much to admire its beauty, but more to marvel at the fact it is still standing and of course to have their photo taken pretending to hold it up or push it over.

As it has turned out, it was a stroke of genius to keep the tower and even add to it — it has certainly put the town of Pisa on the world map.

We arrived in Pisa by train from Florence and enjoyed a pleasant stroll through the town.

Pisa is a very nice place but it is doubtful it would have enjoyed the same fame without the leaning tower. I noticed a few other towers around town — they were perfectly straight and didn’t seem to attract anywhere near the interest as their distinctive neighbour.

Our first glimpse of the tower surprised me — it was actually leaning more than I had imagined and it looked quite alarming compared to the surrounding buildings as we approached. Once at the site, the gleaming white tower made a spectacular sight next to the Piazza del Duomo and the immaculate lawns surrounding it.

Construction began in 1173 but it wasn’t until 1178 when the second floor was added that it began to sink due to inadequate foundations in the unstable soil. As a result, construction was halted for almost a century because the Republic of Pisa was engaged in constant battles with Genoa, Lucca and Florence.

When construction eventually resumed in 1272, engineers built the upper floors with one side taller than the other in an effort to compensate for the tilt, resulting in a banana-shaped tower. It was 1319 before the seventh floor was completed. Finally in 1372, the bell chamber was added. The tower has seven bells, one for each note on the musical scale.

Sadly, gravity was slowly winning the battle, so in 1964 the Italian government requested help to stop the tower from toppling.

By now the tower was important to the tourism industry of Pisa so it was important to stabilise the tower but retain the lean if possible. Many methods were proposed and tried, lead counterweights were added, the bells were removed to relieve some weight and cables were attached and anchored several hundred metres away. Eventually, by removing soil on the raised side in 2001, the tower was returned to its 1838 position.

After removing more soil in 2008 the tower was declared safe for the next 200 years.

Even after the restoration work it leans at 3.99 degrees from vertical. At the top the bells have been levelled off, which added to the weirdness as I walked around to take in the lovely views of Pisa.

Pisa is a great example of the possibilities of turning failure into success. Maybe the engineers who are working on the Elizabeth Quay project here in Perth should disturb the foundations around our own Bell Tower so we can get Perth on to the world map as well.

The West Australian

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