Staff Newspaper of Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine
IC Reporter
 Issue 107, 26 June 2001
Minister praises research centre «
Shining lights scoop 25,000 prize «
Pisa stands proud «
e-MasterClass - the human touch «
Sinfonia 21 world premieres «
European Business Plan win «
Want to get ahead? «
Nicholas has Sachs appeal «
JIF award «
Something fishy... «
Inaugural lecture «
Goon, but not forgotten... «
March - June 2001 «
Regular Features
In Brief «
Media Spotlight «

Pisa stands proud
by Tanya Reed

San Ranieri would be proud .... the whole of Pisa turned out to celebrate the patron saint on 16 June when a grand ceremony marking the return of the Leaning Tower to the authorities meant a carnival atmosphere, culminating in candle-lit boats and mediaeval costume throughout the town.

John Burland, professor of soil mechanics, relished the festivities before receiving a medal for his work in helping stabilise the monument.

Pisa... a lean too far
In March 1990, Professor John Burland took a call from a friend, a professor of civil engineering. The conversation went something like this:

"John, it's Michele. I've just opened my newspaper and Andrioti's set up a commission to straighten Pisa. Apparently, I'm the chairman.
"Sorry Michele, what a poison chalice."
"Keep your sympathy. Your name's down too."

Gill and John Burland
Gill and John Burland
What began as 11 years of hard labour for Imperial's professor of soil mechanics, concluded on 16 June 2001. Among beating drums and flag-waving locals in mediaeval costume, he handed the key to the Leaning Tower of Pisa back to the authorities. With it, went relief at one of the most taxing projects he has ever encountered.

"This has been one of those stories that you read about and simply don't believe," he explained. "Working with Italian beaucracy was extraordinary; some of the personalities I've worked with have beggared belief. Our efforts were often slowed down for up to six months at a stretch, due to political blocking.

"People furiously opposed what we were trying to do when the Tower was the responsibility of two Ministries - the Fine Arts for Ancient Monuments and the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works. It was a real 'Yes Minister' scenario."

Nevertheless, the professor was responsible for helping prevent the tower crashing to the ground. Every day for the past two years, he responded to faxes from engineers in Italy, telling them how and where to dig beneath the Leaning Tower.

"It was incredibly tense as we were taking out soil from the high side; it was a continuing pressure. Whether I was at a conference in Australia or on holiday in Syria, faxes were still coming in."

He has worked on the project two days a week for eleven years on average. A member of a 14 strong rescue committee which included only two foreigners, the professor was responsible for helping ensure the £20 million project didn't fail by producing day-by-day analysis of the tower's position followed by carefully calculated excavation from the foundations.

"At the angle it was, we couldn't even get the tower to stand up on our computer model. That shows just how close to falling over it really was."

Saturday, 16 June proved emotive in many ways. At the feast of San Ranieri, a grand ceremony celebrating the patron saint of Pisa, Professor Burland received a medal for his contribution to stabilising the Tower.

The experience of climbing the 293 steps inside is one not to be missed, he says. The Tower re-opens in November for the public to enjoy and is a journey he has taken hundreds of times and still considers extraordinary - it can cause feelings of seasickness due to the up and down and sideways motion caused by steps on the inside of the Tower's walls.

He compares it to walking up an inclined helix.

Eighty-five undergraduates experienced the feeling in February when Civsoc, the department's undergraduate civil engineering society, climbed the Tower to visit on-going work after securing £15,700 sponsorship for the event from industry.

"The Tower now overhangs by four metres instead of four and a half metres which means it should stand for another 400 years," concludes the professor.

"There's no reason why what we've done can't be repeated if it's needed. Fortunately, I won't be there to see it."

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© Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, 2001
26 June 2001