Catastrophic Collapse: Lessons Learned, After the Fall

Building collapses are rare but can happen for a host of reasons: earthquakes, extreme weather, human error, or a combination of factors. Fortunately, the lessons we learn from building failures make us all safer. These lessons often lead to refinements in construction codes and maintenance protocols, and can even bring about critical retrofits of existing buildings.

We have chosen eight well documented structural failure case studies, highlighting how building safety has been improved in their wake. The exhibition concludes with some speculation as to what we may learn from the recent collapse of a condominium building in Surfside, Florida, in 2021.

The exhibition features some of our nation’s most catastrophic structural disasters—from the South Fork Dam and Tacoma Narrows Bridge to the Northridge Meadows Apartments and the World Trade Center. Each catastrophic collapse offers a story with lessons learned that improved the way we design buildings today.

1889……… South Fork Dam / Johnstown, PA
1922……… Knickerbocker Theatre / Washington, DC
1940……… Tacoma Narrows Bridge / Tacoma, WA
1981……… Hyatt Regency Hotel / Kansas City, MO
1994……… Northridge Meadows Apartments / Los Angeles, CA
2001……… World Trade Center / New York, NY
2005……… New Orleans Levees/Floodwalls / New Orleans, LA
2021……… Champlain Towers South / Surfside, FL
2021……… Western Kentucky Tornado


Catastrophic Collapse: Lessons Learned, After the Fall is organized by AIA|DC for the SIGAL Gallery.

Sponsored by:
National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB)
District of Columbia Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA)

Supported by:
Sustaining Firm Affiliate Members

Curatorial Team:
Mary Fitch, AICP, Hon. AIA / Executive Director, AIA|DC (script writing)
Scott Clowney, Assoc. AIA / Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs, AIA|DC (script writing; proofreading; image collection)
G. Martin Moeller, Jr., Assoc. AIA, Independent Curator (interpretive consultation; editing)
Rupa M. Patel, P.E., LEED AP BD+C / Senior Associate, Thornton Tomasetti (research assistance)
Dara Naderi, PE / Associate, Thornton Tomasetti (research assistance)

Exhibition & Graphic Design:
Rina Alfonso, RGD / Founder & Creative Director, Studio Aorta
Danielle Coates, RGD / Senior Design Associate, Studio Aorta
Arianno Ho / Studio Assistant | Design Associate, Studio Aorta

Print Production:
Print Exhibit Partners, LLC

Special Thanks to these Image Contributors:
California State University Northridge; Dave Eames, Illustrator/Graphic Designer; District of Columbia Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs; Fine Homebuilding magazine; Johnstown Flood Museum Archives, Johnstown Area Heritage Association; New School of Architecture and Design; Perkins Eastman DC; University of Washington Libraries

Health and Safety Guidelines*

Please note the following COVID-19 safety measures:

  • Proof of vaccination is not required
  • Masks are not required
  • Social distancing is encouraged during your visit
  • Stay home if you are sick, suspect exposure to or have COVID-19

By visiting the District Architecture Center, you voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19, acknowledge that such matters are beyond the control of AIA|DC and the Washington Architectural Foundation, and agree to abide by our health and safety guidelines.

*subject to change pending updated guidance