Monday, 30 June 2014


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10 Treacherous Trails With Gorgeous Views
By Josh Lew,
Mother Nature Network, 27 June 2014.

On the edge

There’s a small thrill that comes along with walking somewhere out of the ordinary. Stepping near steep drop-offs or moving just above rushing rivers or violent waves creates an adrenaline rush and offers the chance to see the world from a unique viewpoint. Some human-made walkways are extreme, consisting of nothing more than narrow boardwalks hundreds or even thousands of feet above the ground. However, these paths also provide views that just can't be matched by easier-to-reach places.

These perilous walkways are not ideal for those with vertigo or a fear of heights, but anyone able to overcome the basic human instinct to stay away from precarious places will be rewarded with a combination of excitement and beautiful panoramas.

Here are several extreme walkways that provide an experience and view worth the effort.

1. El Caminito del Rey, Spain

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Photo: Gabi/Flickr

Near the city of Alora in the Spanish province of Malaga, El Caminito del Rey (the King's Little Pathway) is considered one of the world's most dangerous trails. The path averages about a yard in width and sits on the side of a sheer cliff 300 feet above the bottom of a gorge. Originally built with concrete, parts of the walkway have eroded completely and only support beams remain. After several fatal falls, the government closed the trail a little more than a decade ago. However, some people still walk the Caminito aided by safety ropes. A major project scheduled to be completed in 2015 is meant to restore the eroded areas of the path and make the entire route safer.

2. Tianmen Mountain Path, China

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Photo: David Wood/Wikimedia Commons

In the northwestern corner of China's Hunan Province, Tianmen Mountain is known for its massive temple and its classical Chinese mountain scenery. A cable car carries passengers above the painting-like landscape to the top of the peak. A narrow cliffside path with a railing circles the summit. A newer section of the walkway was made using a glass floor. People can walk on the 3-foot-wide panes, which sit nearly 5,000 feet above sea level, but they have to wear cloth slippers so they do not leave scuff marks. This is because the walkway is in such a precarious position that cleaning it is nearly impossible.

3. Chang Kong Cliff Road, China

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Photo: Ian Armstrong/Flickr

Hua Shan (Hua Mountain) sits in China's Shaanxi Province about 70 miles from the ancient city of Xian. The steep climb to the summit has traditionally been used by monks and hermits as a kind of spiritual exercise. Some sections of the path are made of wood planks, many of which are centuries old, nailed to the side of the sheer cliff. After adventure seekers started coming to the mountain a few decades ago, fatalities rose. Sections have been made safer by grinding down the rock and increasing the width of the path. Safety ropes have been added to the most precarious sections of the cliffside “boardwalk.” The trek up Hua Shan is even more challenging for many hikers because they make the climb in the dark of night so they can reach the summit to see sunrise. Some say climbing at night is easier because they can't see how extreme the drop-offs along the path are.

4. Capilano Suspension Bridge and Cliffwalk, Canada

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Photo: David Davies/Flickr

This park near downtown Vancouver contains the most easily accessible extreme walkways on our list. In fact, there are two paths worth mentioning inside Capilano. The Capilano Suspension Bridge, built more than a century ago, stretches for 450 feet. Visitors can stand more than 200 feet above the bridge's namesake river while enjoying views of British Columbia's trademark pine forests. The park's Cliffwalk provides a much greater adrenaline rush. The series of walkways, bridges and stairways follow a cliff face. These wooden platforms are anchored to the rock in only 16 places, giving the people who attempt this route a feeling of being suspended in air. In a few sections, glass panes are all that separate hikers from the valley floor below.

5. Grand Canyon Skywalk, Arizona, USA

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Photo: Leonardo Stabile/Flickr

A cantilever bridge that allows people to walk way past the edge of the world's most famous canyon, the Grand Canyon Skywalk is popular among sightseers and thrill-seekers. Easily recognizable in photos because of its distinctive horseshoe shape, the glass floor allows visitors to look down at the base of the canyon, nearly 4,000 feet below. At its farthest point, the walkway is 70 feet beyond the edge of the cliff. The Skywalk in Grand Canyon West is on land owned by the Hualapai Tribe, which oversees its operation. The western section of the canyon is actually closer to Las Vegas than it is to the more well-known sections of the canyon to the east (including the popular South Rim area).

6. Kakum National Park Canopy Walkway, Ghana

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Photo: Erik Cleves Kristensen/Flickr

Three hours from the capital city of Accra, Ghana's Kakum National Park features the kind of dense forests that characterize much of the country’s south. This walkway is more than 1,000 feet long with an average height of 130 feet above the forest floor. Though most people consider it secure, the walkway is hardly state-of-the-art: It consists of wire rope, aluminium ladders and wooden boards. Additional netting is meant to provide an extra layer of safety. The canopy walkway and park are part of a conservation project that allows local people to focus on making income from tourism instead of from logging, farming or poaching.

7. Hanging Bridge of Ghasa, Nepal

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Photo: John Pavelka/Flickr

Stretching high above a river valley, this bridge near the Nepalese town of Ghasa was built for a very practical reason. So long that it earned the adjective “hanging,” the crossing was made to ease traffic congestion caused by local animal herds. At first glance, it certainly appears to be one of the most extreme and dangerous places on this list. However, the bridge sees a high amount of traffic daily, with herders and farmers using it to move goods to market. So, in fact, this walkway has proven capable of handing a large amount of weight. Ghasa is on the popular Annapurna Circuit, a widely used trekking route through the Himalayan foothills.

8. Titlis Cliff Walk, Switzerland

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Photo: Andreas Faessler/Wikimedia Commons

The Titlis Cliff Walk sits about 10,000 feet above sea level on the side of its namesake mountain high in the Swiss Alps. Designed like a suspension bridge, the Cliff Walk has an overall length of more than 300 feet, but its width is less than 3 feet. A glacier sits more than 1,500 feet below the walkway, and on a clear day, visitors can see across the Alps all the way to Italy. Titlis is widely considered the highest suspension bridge in Europe and one of the highest, in terms of altitude above sea level, in the entire world. Because of the severity of the drop on either side of the bridge, the Cliff Walk is often closed during periods of high wind and low visibility.

9. Auckland 360 Skywalk, New Zealand

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Photo: Jason Pratt/Flickr

One of the most unusual walkways on our list, the Auckland Skywalk consists of a platform attached to the side of a skyscraper in the downtown area of New Zealand's capital city. What truly makes a stroll on this path extreme is that it has no railings. Except for the few places where it is connected to the building, both sides of the 4-foot-wide walkway are surrounded by nothing but air, with the ground more than 600 feet below. People wear full-body harnesses attached to safety lines and are led around the path by a guide.

10. Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Northern Ireland

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Photo: Supermac1961/Flickr

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge in Northern Ireland spans a 60-foot chasm on its namesake island. The drop to the rocky waters below is about 100 feet. As its name suggests, this bridge is held up by ropes, with walkers given two narrow boards to step on as they make the crossing. Earlier versions of the bridge were even more precarious and were used only by a few brave fishermen who crossed the chasm to access secret fishing areas teeming with salmon. The current incarnation, built nearly 10 years ago, maintains the feel of the earlier models, but it is, in fact, much safer and more secure.

Top image: Huashan Mountain plank walk, Shaanxi Province, China. Photo: Ken Marshall/Flickr.

[Source: Mother Nature Network. Edited.]


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10 Recent Archaeological Finds That Shed Light On Our Past
By Ivan Farkas,
Listverse, 30 June 2014.

Archaeological discoveries are constantly made, either on purpose or by accident. Some of these might be minor, yet others can reveal secrets about past civilizations and their way of life. And sometimes we’ll just find a bunch of old poo and wine.

10. The Mystery Of The Desert Kites Solved

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Photo credit: Galpaz

Over the past decade, science has cracked many archaeological mysteries, including the case of the desert kites, a series of unimaginably ancient stone walls built across the deserts of the Middle East. Some of the massive walls are over 5,000 years old, but no one ever knew what they were for - until archaeologists realized that the structures were always built along the migratory routes of animals.

It was originally speculated that the kites were used as giant pens to protect animals from predators, and that theory is at least partially correct - they were used to hold animals. But rather than protecting livestock, the walls actually served to trap herds of migratory animals for slaughter. These corrals were set up long after agricultural societies developed in the region and the fact that they were erected along migratory paths shows that our farmer ancestors still paid close attention to the behaviour of wild animals.

9. Egyptian Tombs In The City Of The Dead

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A hieroglyph-packed tomb uncovered at an archaeological site south of Cairo might reveal new insights about one of the most fascinating civilizations in history. For over 3,000 years the tomb has been hidden beneath the sands of the necropolis at Saqqara - the famed city of the dead that served the Egyptian capital of Memphis. Saqqara houses a sprawling network of burial sites that held some of Egypt’s most prominent citizens, including pharaohs.

The tomb itself is similar to another that was discovered nearby - both held high-ranking officials that died during the 20th dynasty, around 3,000 years ago. The tombs’ inhabitants were a royal messenger and a military official. Sadly, the tombs had been ravaged by looters in the past and were found mostly empty, other than some graffiti. So archaeologists had to settle for the intricate wall-carvings, which reveal new details about Egyptian belief in the afterlife.

8. The Oldest Evidence Of Cancer

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In modern times, the incidence of cancer is increasing at an alarming rate due to our booming population, prolonged life expectancy, and abundance of pollutants. Meanwhile, the prevalence of cancer in the ancient world is mostly a mystery, as tumours and other soft tissues degrade into nothingness fairly quickly.

But archaeologists got lucky recently, after the discovery of a 3,000-year-old body that shows signs of the disease. Inside a decorated coffin in a Sudanese tomb it appears that we’ve found the earliest evidence of cancer. The man was probably between 25 and 35 when he died, and he appears to have suffered extensive skeletal damage due to metastasizing (spreading) soft-tissue tumours throughout his body.

The discovery is important as it allows us to trace the evolution of a common modern illness and opens up intriguing questions about carcinogens in the ancient world.

7. A 13,000-Year-Old Skeleton Confirms The Origin Of Native Americans

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If there’s any evidence that we don’t give archaeologists enough credit, it has to be the recent discovery of a 13,000-year-old skeleton known as Naia. What’s so special about this skeleton? Well to start with, archaeologists had to crawl through a crevice and then dive deep into the belly of an subterranean Mexican cave in order to find it. And we mean “dive” literally because the cave was underwater, pitch dark, and full of creepy-crawlies.

For most of us, a grinning skull is the last thing we’d want to encounter in those circumstances, but for scientists and historians it was a huge deal. Naia is one of the oldest (possibly the oldest) skeletons found in the Americas, and she has already helped to clear up one controversial aspect of New World history.

The traditional theory holds that the Americans were populated by a group called the Paleoamericans, who crossed a land bridge from Siberia. However, previous Paleoamerican skulls didn’t resemble modern Native Americans, leading some to speculate that modern Native Americans might have been descended from a separate group that arrived later. Naia has the unique Paleoamerican cranial structure, but DNA from her teeth linked her to modern Native Americans, providing conclusive evidence that the two groups are related after all.

6. Barrels Full Of Poo Reveal Medieval Diet And Toilet Paper

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Archaeologists are possibly the only group that get excited over finding other people’s poo. So Danish archaeologists were ecstatic when they pried open a treasure trove of old wooden barrels found near the city of Odense - only to find them full of partially fossilized faeces. Normally, such barrels were used to transport perishables, but it appears they were later repurposed into cutting-edge medieval latrines.

The unexpected toilets were found in mint condition, allowing for forensic analysis of some really old poo and furthering our understanding of medieval dietary habits (raspberries appear to have been quite popular). Scraps of toilet paper were found as well - or at least the bits of leather, moss, and other soft materials that were used as toilet paper in those days.

Archaeologists confirmed that, even after all those years, the barrels still stank.

5. A New Pharaoh (And His Hand-Me-Downs)

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It’s not often that we find a new pharaoh to add to the lineage of ancient rulers. So archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania probably permitted themselves a few high fives after the recent discovery of an unknown pharaoh, Woseribre Senebkay, who ruled between the 15th and 16th Dynasties. And while it might seem that our knowledge of Egyptian history is comparatively complete, many names have been lost to history, and the pharaonic timeline is sometimes revised.

Pharaoh Senebkay was entombed inside a fancy, 60-ton sarcophagus made of red quartz, though some aspects of the burial make Woseribre look like something of a B-list ruler. For example, his canopic chest (where the organs were stored) was a hand-me-down that belonged to a different pharaoh. As a matter of fact, the old pharaoh’s name was still visible on the chest, although it had been crossed out and replaced with “Senebkay.” Other items were also reused, suggesting a lack of resources and funding - or possibly just that no one liked poor ol’ Senebkay.

4. One Of The Oldest Images Of Jesus

Perhaps no historical figure is portrayed more in art, iconography, and literature than Jesus Christ. However, most of the images we’re accustomed to seeing are relatively modern - so historians instantly began watering at the mouth when an ancient image of Christ was discovered inside a newly unearthed tomb at a site called Al Bahnasa, in Egypt. The mysterious subterranean crypt also housed the remains of a family of priests and has been dated to the sixth century. If that dating is verified, the find will be one of the oldest images of Christ ever discovered.

The carved and painted image shows a man with curly hair holding his arm up, as if delivering a blessing. His likeness is surrounded by Coptic texts which are yet to be translated. Although Christianity did not spread to Egypt until around A.D. 55, the story of how the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus travelled through the country while fleeing King Herod meant several places in the area were considered holy sites.

3. The Palace Of King David Possibly Found In Israel

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A complex of 3,000-year-old ruins uncovered by Israeli archaeologists could be among the most important discoveries in recent history, as some believe them to be the remnants of the biblical King David’s palace. Or at least a palace King David used when he was in the area.

There is (obviously) controversy over such a claim and there is no overall consensus as to its authenticity. The site is undoubtedly impressive, however, including a 930-square-meter (10,000 sq ft) palace fortified by thick walls.

The ruins are located at Khirbet Qeiyafa, in the same area as an ancient city mentioned in Judean scriptures. Biblical claims are also bolstered by the fact that the ruins date to about 1,000 B.C., which is the same period suggested for King David’s reign.

2. An Ancient Wine Stash Shows What Our Ancestors Liked To Drink

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Humans have been enjoying alcohol for thousands of years, so it’s always interesting to find out what ancient civilizations drank. Recently, Israeli archaeologists stumbled upon the largest treasure trove of old wine ever found - a private collection of nearly 40 large jars.

Each of these jars held around 50–60 litres of what was probably a delicious wine. The cache of booze might originally have been much larger, but only around 40 containers were salvaged from the ruins of a Canaanite palace. Through the magic of science, the residue that remained inside the containers was analyzed, and the Canaanite wine turned out to be similar to a medicinal version brewed by the ancient Egyptians.

So, how did the Canaanites like their wine? It turned out to be a surprisingly sophisticated recipe which included tree resins, cinnamon bark, honey, mint, juniper berries, and cedar. The age of the discovery suggests that winemaking was developed in the region before spreading to Egypt and the Mediterranean.

1. An Immaculate Tomb Shines A Light On The Mysterious Wari People

The sad truth of archaeology is that a lot of the awesome tombs and burial sites we discover have long since been plundered by looters. But a Peruvian tomb built by a mysterious people known as the Wari was recently found in mint condition. The tomb was full of golden artefacts, as well as the untouched mummies of several Wari queens.

The Wari empire flourished between A.D. 700–1000, predating the more famous Inca, and the mausoleum contained an embarrassment of riches. Rows of bodies were found near the entrance, all adorned in fine jewellery. Deeper inside, the royal mummies were discovered with over a thousand pieces of treasure - including jewellery, tools, and utensils - made of silver and gold. If that wasn’t enough, it appears that a group of human sacrifices were also included, as six bodies were found sprawled out (and not mummified) on the ground in the main chamber.

[Source: Listverse. Edited.]


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10 Famous Structures With Catastrophic Hidden Flaws
By Larry Jimenez,
Listverse, 26 June 2014.

No human artefact is perfect. While we may marvel at the beauty and creativity of many of our historic structures, they contain defects hidden underneath the familiar and iconic forms. Some flaws are cosmetic and may be forgiven or overlooked, while others are more serious and pose a threat to life and limb.

10. Sydney Opera House: The Worst Sound In The World

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Photo credit: Koika/Wikimedia

Like billowing sails out on the harbour, the iconic Sydney Opera House has become a symbol of Australia as much as the kangaroo.

Danish architect Jorn Utzon’s design was revolutionary in 1957, when it won an international competition. It was originally planned to contain a large hall for opera and a smaller theatre for concerts and drama. But after nine years of construction, quarrels with the conservative government of New South Wales over costs forced Utzon out of the project. The local architects hired to finish the job completely switched the functions of the hall and theatre, resulting in an auditorium that is too small for opera and a concert hall that is way too big.

This was understandable at the time, when symphonies drew in more people than opera. But today, the Concert Hall has 1,000 seats too many, while the Opera Theatre's pit is so small, musicians have difficulty coordinating their performance. Meanwhile, sound tends to dissipate in the cavernous Concert Hall, once prompting a boycott by the chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

It’s like watching performances on an ’80s-era TV set, and you may want to turn up the volume if you are sitting at the back. A poll of musicians, critics, and audience members rated the Opera Theatre as having the worst acoustics out of 20 major venues. The Concert Hall was ranked 18th.

The government is now faced with the possibility that the building will soon be functionally obsolete unless it is raised to 21st-century standards. Already, a major performance of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle passed over Sydney in favour of Melbourne’s Art Centre. The renovation is estimated to cost a staggering AUD 825 million (US$775 million).

9. Fallingwater: A Collapsing Disaster

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Nature lover Edgar Kaufman was surprised when architect Frank Lloyd Wright showed him the designs for his dream house. Kaufman had wanted a house with a view of the falls at Bear Run stream in western Pennsylvania. Wright presented him with a daring design of a house on top of the falls. It is one of the finest examples of a man-made structure blending in with the natural environment. However, beneath the breathtaking facade, Fallingwater was a structural nightmare.

Construction began in 1936, and Kaufman bought in consulting engineers to double-check Wright’s design. The engineers thought the beams supporting the living room should have more reinforcing steel. Wright’s massive ego refused to admit to any shortcomings with his design. Workers inserted additional reinforcing steel anyway without Wright’s approval and permission, opening a rift between Wright and Kaufman.

When the house was finished in 1939, the floor was already sagging by 4.5 centimetres (1.75 in) despite the added reinforcement. By 1995, it had gone down almost 20 centimetres (7 in), and cracks were widening. Tests ominously showed the concrete being stressed to 95 percent of its failure strength.

Fallingwater was falling down. It was a miracle that it had even held up as long as it had.

Engineers rushed to fix the beams that hold the house up. An entire secondary structural system now relieves the stresses on the old girders. The repairs cost around US$11 million, but they ensured that Wright’s masterpiece will continue to impress for years to come.

8. Citicorp Centre: A Building Set To Topple

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Citicorp Centre in midtown Manhattan was the seventh-tallest skyscraper in the world when it was built in 1977. The 59-story building is instantly recognizable by its 45-degree angled top - and by its stilts. Citicorp Centre rests seemingly precariously on nine-story stilts.

This unusual design was an accommodation to St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, which occupied the corner of the building lot. Rather than move elsewhere, St. Peter’s insisted that Citicorp build a new church on the same spot. A further condition was that the proposed skyscraper could not encroach on church grounds, though they could build on the airspace above. Engineer William LeMessurier conceived of stilts to avoid the church and cantilever the building over it.

By necessity, the stilts were not on the corners of the building, where they could have been more stable, but at the midpoint of its sides. It was an odd but apparently sound solution - until its weakness was discovered, entirely by accident.

Engineering student Diane Hartley called the LeMessurier company to ask technical questions on the safety of the design. Hartley was particularly concerned about the effect of quartering winds, or winds that strike a building at its corners. Since Citicorp had no stilts at its corners, might it not be vulnerable? LeMessurier assured her that the framework could resist even the strongest winds. But after the interview, they began having second thoughts.

During construction, LeMessurier had used bolts instead of welds to secure many of the building’s joints. It was normally an innocuous change, but this was not a normal building. Doing the math again, the company was appalled to discover that Hartley was right - 112-kilometre-per-hour (70 mph) gusts could overwhelm the bolts, and Citicorp could topple in the wind. The death toll would be unimaginable. With hurricane season fast approaching, there was no time to lose.

In utmost secrecy so as not to alarm the public, emergency repair crews swarmed the building by night, welding all the joints. It helped that New York City’s newspapers were on strike at the time. Hurricane Ella was already moving up the coast, and evacuation plans covering a 10-block radius were prepared in case the unthinkable happened. It was a relief when Ella veered away, and the repairs were done by September 1978. It was touch-and-go, and the world didn’t know anything about it until 1995, when it was featured in an article in the New Yorker.

As for Diane Hartley, she never knew she had saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives with her phone call, until she saw a special on the crisis aired by the BBC.

7. Monticello: A Cramped Death-Trap

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Photo credit: Moofpocket/Wikimedia

Thomas Jefferson broke architecture’s cardinal rule in building Monticello: Form follows function. Jefferson put aesthetics ahead of comfort in his plan. While most plantation houses were built on riverbanks for easy access, Jefferson built Monticello, south of Charlottesville, Virginia, on a mountaintop - hence its name, which is Italian for “Little Mountain.”

The site is grand and majestic, but it came with a cost. First of all, construction slowed. Once the residence was completed, the well lacked enough water to supply it, and Jefferson had to haul water up the mountain from the nearby springs.

Jefferson’s family grumbled about the discomfort of living in cramped rooms. His daughter, Martha Randolph, particularly disliked the alcove beds, boxed in on three sides, that Jefferson had designed to save space. The most impressive feature of Monticello, the domed room, serves no function whatsoever. It is unheated and lacks easy access and proper ventilation.

But the most serious design flaw in the house are the dark, narrow, steep, and twisting stairs, which are accidents waiting to happen. Jefferson thought stairs in general eat up a lot of space, particularly the grand, sweeping staircases common in similar residences. At 188 centimetres (6’2”), Jefferson could tackle the steep steps easily. Besides, he rarely used them as he confined himself mostly on the first floor. But they were a daily ordeal for shorter people, women with wide skirts, or servants burdened with laundry. Even today, tour guides advise less agile visitors to cope with the stairs by going down backward.

6. Versailles Palace: A Stinking Mess

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Photo credit: ToucanWings/Wikimedia

Louis XIV of France determined to build himself a palace befitting his status as the Sun King. With its 700 rooms, 67 staircases, soaring painted ceilings, and marbled hallways, Versailles fulfilled that vision.

Today’s visitors will be surprised to learn that this majestic estate was once a stinking, dirty place you’d rather not enter, let alone live in. Versailles was built without proper toilets. People had to handle their bodily functions wherever they could.

That was a huge problem back in the day, when Versailles, from the gardens to the royal apartments, was open to the public. Courtiers and royalty did their business using portable decorative commodes or by stealing away under cover of darkness out to the gardens. The waste from the commodes was simply tossed out of windows. Two princesses accompanying Queen Marie Antoinette on a stroll in the courtyard once suffered a drenching from one of the windows.

The common folk, as well as the royal dogs, took to relieving themselves in hallways and staircases. The unbearable odour clung to clothes, undergarments, and even wigs. The servants did not consider hauling out waste as part of their duties. Just around the time of Louis XIV’s death in 1715, a rule came out requiring the corridors to be cleared of faeces once a week.

Only in 1768 - 144 years after the palace was built - did some bright fellow think of adding toilets.

5. Washington Monument: Almost A Leaning Tower

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The Washington Monument was envisioned to be the tallest masonry obelisk in the world, a fitting tribute to the Father of His Country. It was originally conceived as a 180-meter (600 ft) flat-topped pillar encased in marble, ringed at its base by a circular colonnade. A sculpture of Washington on a chariot would adorn its roof.

The structure was severely compromised from the beginning. The shaft rested on a foundation measuring only 7 square meters (80 sq ft). It exerted nearly 500 kilopascals (10,000 lb/sq ft) of pressure on a bed of clay and fine sand. As a result, the shaft began to lean 4 centimetres (1.7 in) out of the vertical and began to crack while construction was only one-third complete.

It looked like America was creating a national disgrace and an international embarrassment with its Leaning Tower. And at least the bell tower of Pisa was an aesthetic marvel - America only had a plain pillar with its top chopped off to show for her efforts. Construction was stopped in 1856 from lack of funds, support, and direction.

In 1876, after years of neglect, Col. Thomas Casey of the US Corps of Engineers received the task of strengthening and completing the monument. Remodelling the aesthetic aspects of the structure, such as eliminating the ostentatious colonnade and topping the shaft with a pointed pyramidion, was the easy part. Thus streamlined, the monument now resembled a sleek Egyptian obelisk. More challenging was doubling the footing and pushing it deeper to a solid stratum of boulders and gravel.

Col. Casey solved all the difficult technical problems, and the Washington Monument was saved. It was officially dedicated on February 21, 1885.

4. John Hancock Tower: Exploding Windows

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Photo credit: Antoine Cadotte

Skyscrapers with all-glass facades are so routinely built today that we take them for granted. But in the ’70s, a building sheathed completely in glass was revolutionary, and Boston’s 240-meter (790 ft) John Hancock Tower was one of the pioneers in this innovative design.

A glass facade saves energy by letting in as much sunlight as possible while reflective panels turn away heat. Hancock Tower, the tallest in Boston, was wrapped with 10,344 panes of the special glass. It was dazzlingly beautiful - until the windows began popping out, raining murderous glass shards on the street below. Speculation blamed either the wind or the shape of the building.

There was more bad news. A Swiss engineer discovered a dangerous sideways motion as the skyscraper was buffeted by winds. Hancock Tower could topple over. The swaying problem was solved by installing two 270-metric-ton (300 ton) counterweights. But the exploding windows still defied explanation. By this time, an acre-size area of missing windows had to be boarded up with plywood, and Bostonians jokingly referred to the Tower as the “Plywood Palace.”

The mystery was solved upon closer examination of the glass. The windows were double-paned, with a layer of lead between the panels. Lead expands when heated and contracts when cooled. The alternating thermal expansions and contractions caused by the heat of the day and cool of night produced stresses within the glass, which caused them to shatter. For an additional cost of US$7 million and a five-year delay, all the windows at Hancock Tower were replaced.

Builders took the lessons of John Hancock Tower to heart. Today, they use flexible silicone instead of lead or other metals sensitive to heat, ensuring that none of us have to look up in anxiety whenever we pass by a glass skyscraper.

3. Golden Gate Bridge: Corroded Suicide Magnet

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Photo credit: Daniel Schwen

Many people originally thought we could never build a suspension bridge across San Francisco Bay. It would have to be light enough to hang from cables yet durable enough to withstand high winds and earthquakes. Today, the Golden Gate Bridge dominates the bay, remarkably resilient throughout its history of close calls.

The bridge was nearly destroyed in 1951, when wind gusts close to 112 kilometres (70 miles) per hour struck, twisting the bridge. Just nine years earlier, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington had broken apart with winds half that strength, and now the Golden Gate looked like it might meet the same fate. Fortunately, it held, but the experience revealed that the stiffening protective trusses needed lateral bracing to stabilize them.

More serious was the flaw in the original design that allowed water to collect where vertical cables meet the bridge deck. The problem was exacerbated by San Francisco Bay’s famous damp fog, a major enemy of structural steel. An inspection in the 1970s showed so much corrosion that the suspender cables could be picked apart by a knife. The problem was so serious that engineers had to replace all 500 cables. The repairs will make the bridge last, with proper maintenance, for another 150 years.

The bridge’s structural shortcomings were all caught before they took any lives. The same can’t be said for a more elementary defect.

The bridge’s original design specified a high railing along the walkways to prevent suicides. But builders decided late to lower the railing to enhance the view. As a result, the Golden Gate Bridge is a magnet for suicides and even murders. Since 1937, the city has recovered 1,600 bodies from the bay below the bridge, with presumably many more victims undetected.

In 2008, a stainless steel net stretching 6 meters (20 ft) below the walkways was proposed as a deterrent.

2. Beauvais Cathedral: Repeated Collapses

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Commissioned in 1225, the Cathedral of St. Pierre de Beauvais in northern France was an ambitious attempt to build the highest Gothic cathedral in the world. Somehow, architect Bernard de Soissons miscalculated the strength of his design. The choir was completed in 1272 with a record-breaking height of 47 meters (154 ft). But in 1284, the room mysteriously collapsed. No one knows why.

The determined locals rebuilt the cathedral, adding more columns. Over 200 years later, a transept was constructed with a soaring 153-meter (500 ft) tower with supporting vaults. During a service on Ascension Day 1573, the tower came crashing down. The disaster discouraged further attempts at rebuilding, and the nave was never built.

Today, the “Parthenon of French Gothic” remains unfinished and is listed in the World Monuments Fund’s 100 Most Endangered Sites. Despite this, it’s a magnificent building, and engineers are desperately trying to understand its structural flaws and find ways to save it.

Miraculously, it survived the bombings of World War II. The threat today is gale-force winds from the English Channel, 160 kilometres (100 mi) away. The winds put heavy stress on the flying buttresses, which in turn weakens the roof framing. A tie-and-brace system of metal and wood supports shakily prop up the church until architects and engineers can figure out a more permanent solution.

To do that, a team from Columbia University scanned the entire cathedral with a laser, producing 75 digital images, each one containing about a million data points. This enabled scientists to create a digital replica of the structure on which they can perform a series of tests and structural analyses to pinpoint exactly where the weaknesses lie. On-going restoration work is guided by the results from these studies. Perhaps one day, Beauvais Cathedral will finally have its nave and tower.

1. Taj Mahal: Thrown Off-Balance

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The ultimate monument to undying love, the Taj Mahal in Agra, India is a dreamlike structure built by emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his beloved wife Mumtaz. From the Persian-inspired “charbagh” or “four-garden” layout to the equidistant minarets flanking the main building with the central tomb, it is a masterpiece of architectural symmetry. Yet, walk inside, and something odd meets the eye.

Mumtaz’s tomb aligns perfectly with the main entrance and lies at the exact centre of the chamber. But beside it on the right, incongruously larger, higher, and evidently out of place, is the tomb of Shah Jahan himself. If it looks like it was stuck there as an afterthought, that’s because it was.

Blame Shah Jahan’s son, Aurangzeb, for this aesthetic insensitivity. It is said that Aurangzeb, a devout Muslim, did not permit the kind of ostentation at death disapproved of in the Quran. So instead of building a separate mausoleum for his father, Aurangzeb simply squeezed in his tomb next to his mother’s. Legend also says that Islamic tradition dictated that a husband’s tomb must be to the right of his wife and facing Mecca.

Whatever Aurangzeb’s motive, he permanently ruined the perfect symmetry of this beautiful mausoleum complex.

Top image: The Taj Mahal. Credit: Muhammad Mahdi Karim/Wikimedia Commons.

[Source: Listverse. Edited.]