Fact Check

Backwards Buildings

Was an odd-looking campus building built backwards by mistake?

Published May 5, 2000


Claim:   A campus building is odd-looking because the builder read the plans wrong and erected it backwards. Its impressive front facade now faces to the rear, while its much less impressive back entrance services the main flow of traffic entering from the front.


Origins:   Common to any number of colleges is the belief that what appears to be a misoriented building is a structure that was built backwards because


someone misread the plans and erected it with the front facing where its rear entrance should have been. While it's true some college buildings appear to conform to this tale because their more imposing entrances are situated at their backs, we've yet to find one constructed this way because of an error in reading the blueprints. Sometimes buildings are designed in this flip-flop manner to take advantage of a natural setting: the more glorious entranceway is matched with features of natural beauty on that side of the edifice, while a more utilitarian entranceway handles the main access on the opposite side. Sometimes (e.g. Douglas Library at Queen's University in Canada) while the fancier entranceway now opens upon an unimpressive setting, it had been originally matched to accentuating landscape features no longer there.

But of course the simple explanation will never suffice when it comes to the imponderables of any campus. That which is seen as mysterious or different is quickly given a suitably folkloric explanation to account for its strangeness. Thus, an unusual design is never credited to an architect's vision; it is instead attributed to an error on the part of those in charge. Students appear to particularly like such tales because they confirm what they really want to believe, that they're actually smarter than those in charge of giving them their educations.

Some versions of the basic tale about a reversed building include the detail of the architect's committing suicide in shame over his gaffe. The "architect driven to suicide by his error" is an old theme in the world of lore; a few scattered examples of it include:

  • A preening British engineer who'd built a bridge across the Danube in 1842 and then loudly boasted his work was perfect was brought low by a passing apprentice, who pointed out the decorative lions had no tongues. The chagrined engineer promptly jumped into the river, taking his own life.
  • The engineer who constructed the lake in Paris' Parc Montsouris and committed suicide after the shame of finding the lake empty on opening day.
  • The architect of Copenhagen's famed Church of Our Saviour, Christianshavn, who is said to have thrown himself off the top of the edifice because the dramatic external stairway coiling up the spire turned counterclockwise instead of the way he'd envisioned it.
  • The architect of Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, who discovered his building to have been erected with the front in the back and the back in the front, and who killed himself by leaping to his death from it.
  • The shamed architect charged with designing Scotland's Fort George so that no part of it could be seen from sea. Local tradition has it that upon rowing out from shore, he discovered that a single chimney was visible, then drew a pistol and blew his brains out.
  • An architect in pre-war Germany who committed suicide after he realized that his half-constructed hospital had been mistakenly planned without bathrooms.

A common theme jumps out from these accounts: when details of the suicide are given, they invariably contain mention of the architect's doing the deed in a way that incorporates his structural shame into his death. Architects dive from their misshapen towers, or plunge

off their less-than-perfect bridges, or even shoot themselves in sight of their errors. In no instance do the folkloric accounts close with news of the architect's quietly taking his life well after the fact at a location far distant from his flawed design. In the world of lore, the architect's suicide must be closely tied to its cause. No possibility for any other explanation (such as problems at home) may be allowed. This simplification of his purpose makes the message of the legend (pride goes before a fall) crystal clear.

A whimsical turn on this legend has it that University of Pennsylvania's Irvine Hall was designed by a student who'd flunked out of their school of architecture. The boy's father supposedly commissioned the building, perhaps to give his son a chance to redeem himself in the school's eyes, or perhaps as an act of revenge upon the school. The structure was in fact designed by famed architect Horace Trumbauer in 1927.

Barbara "graduate of the school of hard knock-knocks" Mikkelson

Last updated:   23 June 2011


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