review

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The Independent Culture
The great strength of the story told in "All Fall Down" was that it had been fiction before it was fact. The first of The Works (a new series covering art, design and popular culture on BBC2), Roger Parson's film was ostensibly about a structural problem in New York's eraser-topped landmark, the Citicorp Building. But it turned out to be about other things as well, in particular about the force of certain mythic archetypes. Tales about overreaching architects and buildings with hidden flaws clearly strike some sympathetic resonance in us, from the Tower of Babel, to Ibsen's The Masterbuilder, Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and even The Towering Inferno.

The difference here was that it unwound as a tale of humility not hubris, of tragedy avoided by penitent confession. The story was oddly but pertinently described as "the greatest disaster never told" by one journalist, and the film underwrote that delicious sense of catastrophe narrowly averted, showing the principal actors in the drama retelling the tale by their firesides, old soldiers recounting a near miss that could still chill the blood. And when the board of Citicorp had to be told that their pride and joy might collapse in a high wind, taking thousands of New Yorkers with it, that moment too was presented as a storyteller's masterstroke. The independent specialist they had hired to check the numbers said simply "Seventy mile wind for five minutes. There goes the Citicorp building". At which point he toppled his notepad to the gleaming corporate mahogany with a resounding smack. "That got their attention," noted one contributor drily.

The fatal flaw had first been noticed by William Le Messurier, the building's structural engineer (and thus the man paid to ensure that the building couldn't fall down). After a conversation with a student writing a paper on the building's unusual design, he realised that an apparently trivial change in construction had left the building vulnerable to winds that, statistically, could be expected once every 16 years. Hurricane season was approaching and if the building fell it would probably take others in mid-town Manhattan with it - setting off the world's most catastrophic and expensive domino race.

The solution was arrived at with what appeared to be positively heroic understatement - "I can tell you I was a bit shocked," said Le Messurier of the moment when he discovered he might go down in history as the author of the deadliest maths error ever. "Whiston was stoic about it," said the architect, recalling the reaction of the Citicorp Chairman when told that the very emblem of the company's fiscal solidarity might become a byword for structural weakness. "It was a tense time," said another engineer, recalling the weeks in which they pored anxiously over the daily weather reports, welding the building together at night.

Parson's film enjoyed the opportunities for gothic touches - reconstructing the secretive repairs as positively Wagnerian scenes of darkness, smoke and fire - but it also found time for more allusive images. There was a nice moment, for example, where you saw Le Messurier standing alone on a frozen Canadian lake. It was both a literal image - this was the place where he had communed alone with his conscience - but also a richly suggestive one, a sense of human weight bearing down on a surface that might just give way without warning.

Without Walls's (C4) special on the Elgin Marbles took the form of a special edition of the quiz show Fifteen to One, a programme in which William G Stewart mounted a personal hobby-horse and rode it till the beast was foaming. The gimmick turned out to be as troublesome as it was helpful, with rather clumsy asides now and then when producers remembered that Stewart was supposed to be acting as quiz master. But the arguments for the return of the sculptures to Greece were clearly, if one-sidedly expressed and you could even see, now and then, why people should care so much about their resting place.

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