The Stories Behind Leaning Towers

Ever wondered why a building leans the way it does? Here is a feature I wrote for the Spectator Life about that very topic!

Why do some buildings lean the way they do? The tales behind their tilts are absolutely fascinating.

Chesterfield Cathedral, UK

At first glance, you might think the silhouette of the crooked spire of Chesterfield Cathedral has a modern feel, as though it has taken its leaning posture from London’s ‘Walkie Talkie’ as it bends and twists simultaneously. It is only as you look down the spire that you realise that it is in fact part of a 14th century cathedral. At 228 foot tall, the spire has a 45 degree twist. There are many theories that surround the accidental distortion. The main thrust of argument lies in the unseasoned timber used to build the structure, plus the lack of cross bracing supporting the spire; another plausible thought comes from the lead in the roof. The south side of the spire gets the most sun, meaning that the lead (all 32 tonnes of it) expands and contracts unevenly in the heat. 

The Crooked House Windsor, UK

The Crooked House in Windsor stood straight for nearly 100 years, until it was caught in the middle of a land dispute. It was ordered to be knocked down to make room for the neighbouring Guildhall. It was then rebuilt in a hurry, using unseasoned oak. It became known as the ‘Crooked House’ soon after construction. Its slant might also be due to the fact that buildings nearby were demolished meaning that it was left unsupported. 

La Tour Penchée (The Leaning Tower) in Oye-Plage, France

The leaning tower in Oye-Plage (between Dunkirk and Calais) is a Second World War observation post built in 1942 by Russian prisoners under German rule. It was designed in the shape of a church to confuse and disorientate British pilots to make them think that it was the Loon-Plage church further along the coast. When the Germans retreated, they tried to blow it up but their efforts failed, leaving the tower leaning at about a 20-degree angle. 

Suurhusen, Germany

More tilted than the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Leaning Tower of Suurhusen featured in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most leaning tower until 2010 when Capital Gate in Abu Dhabi took its place (although this was designed with an intentional tilt). According to a local historian, the church was built in the Middle Ages on marshy land over the foundations of tree trunks which were preserved by groundwater. When the land was drained in the nineteenth century, the wood rotted which caused the tower to tilt. The steeple had to be closed to the public in the mid 1970s for ten years because it was deemed unsafe. Many attempts were made to stabilise it and it was declared stable in 1996. 

The Leaning Tower of Torun, Poland

Legend has it that a Teutonic Knight from Torun broke his vows of chastity and fell in love with the daughter of a wealthy merchant. As penance, he was made to build a leaning tower that showed the danger of deviating from the strict monastic rules. Today, it is said that only those who have sinned struggle to keep their balance under the tower. Torun’s tourist board website adds another dimension to the story. There were also some who thought the buildings problems were a result of ‘God’s punishment for allegedly blasphemous discovery of Copernicus.’ The astronomer was from Torún and when news reached Rome of his theories of the sun being at the centre of the universe, there was talk of placing his work on the list of forbidden books. However, if you favour an explanation grounded in science as to the tower’s leaning stature, then its lean might be down to the sandy subsoil beneath the building. 

Leaning Tower of Bad Frankenhausen, Germany

‘Our Lady of the Mount’ was built in 1382 on Romanesque foundations. So severe is its tilt that it was scheduled for demolition in 2011 but was saved by Angela Merkel’s government in 2014. It has claim to be the tallest leaning building in Europe – five inches taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The reason for its crookedness most probably lies in the surrounding land: it started leaning by the 17th century because of sinkholes in the area due to salt mining. It was used by the SS during the Second World War to store weapons. 

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