Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Blinded by the light

The architectural buzz out of London these days surrounds 20 Fenchurch Street, a skyscraper in The City that’s got some folks up in arms, and some things up in flames.walkie-talkie-building

The building, dubbed the Walkie-Talkie because of its resemblance to, well, a Walkie-Talkie, has been reflecting off such intense light that it managed to melt part of of Jaguar parked a few blocks away. (Londoners are quite fond of nicknaming their buildings. The shorter, bullet-shaped building to the left of (facing) the Walkie-Talkie is called the Gherkin.)

The Jaguar’s meltdown – plastic parts turned to soft-serve by the glare, to the tune of $1,500 worth or repair work (it didn’t help that the car was a heat-absorbing black) – was only part of the light show:

There have also been reports of a smouldering bicycle seat, singed fabric and blistered paintwork. (Source: BBC)

Ah, when buildings go bad…

I remember when the Hancock Building – Boston’s tallest – went up. Not only did it create a wind tunnel, but – likely due to the wind tunnel - windows kept popping out. Since people couldn’t yell “Incoming!”, and then duck and cover faHancock Plywoodst enough, the sidewalks around the building were closed. And the hellzapoppin’ windows were boarded over with plywood.

All’s well now, but this was a real mess for a while.

Meanwhile, the Walkie-Talkie – renamed, for the duration, the Walkie-Scorchie – works the same way that the mean kid burning ants with a mirror did:

"Fundamentally it's reflection. If a building creates enough of a curve with a series of flat windows, which act like mirrors, the reflections all converge at one point, focusing and concentrating the light," says Chris Shepherd, from the Institute of Physics.

Fortunately – for Jaguar parkers, at least – the developers can pinpoint where the glare is and close the area off to parking. Which won’t help you out much if your object is more fixed – say, a storefront.

The developers have also noted that the problem is tied to the elevation of the sun in the sky, which will fix itself in a couple of weeks. So it looks like they have until next summer to get the permanent fix in.

The Walkie-Talkie is not the first building to be a scorcher.

In 2003, the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, designed by architect Frank Gehry, hit a similar stumbling block.

"The building was clad from head to toe, right down to the pavement, in stainless steel panels, and they would send the sun dazzling across the sidewalks to hotspots where people were. It was measured up to 60C (140F).

While this is not enough to melt the metal in a car – can you imagine blobs of molten vehicle all over the place? - PVC plastic melts well below that point, and people, while they don’t so easily melt or soften, can get awfully, awfully hot.

"Local people living there complained they were having to crank their air conditioning up to maximum to cool things down," [architectural critic Jonathan Glancey] says…

After computer models and sensor equipment identified the panels causing the problem, they were sanded down to break up the sun's rays.

There’s also a glaring precedent when it comes to the Walkie-Talkie’s architect himself.

Rafael Viñoly, the Uruguayan-born architect who designed the new London building that's now frying eggs across the street because of its intense reflection, is the same architect who designed another notorious "fry-scraper" in Las Vegas years ago.

In 2010, guests of Viñoly's Vdara Hotel and Spa at MGM's Aria began complaining of severe burns from the glare being reflected off the building's facade.

"It felt like I had a chemical burn. I couldn't imagine why my head was burning," the Daily Mail quoted one lawyer as saying. "Within 30 seconds, the back of my legs were burning. My first thought was, 'Jesus, they destroyed the ozone layer!'"

…The Mail went on to report that Viñoly "foresaw the issue with the reflecting sun but thought they had solved it by installing a high-tech film on the south-facing panes of glass," but that an MGM spokesman had conceded the measures fell short. (Source: Business Insider.)

So, Viñoly has had the problem in the past, but made the same/similar mistake again?


Did he figure that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and that the weather in London is a lot cloudier, rainier, and just plain grayer. Seriously, when you think London, nobody really thinks glaring sun.

Still, don’t architects get paid to figure out potential problems and factor that into their designs?

Who pays to rectify this one? The architect? The developers?

A parking ban in the sun spot just won’t cut it as a the solution.

Meanwhile, I saw over on Viñoly’s site that one of his current projects is in Boston, where he’s the architect for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate. It’s going up over at UMass-Boston where the (John F.) KennedyLibrary is located.

I’m not over that way too often, but I’ll have to remember to take my parasol, wear my shades, and slather on the SPF 50 before I go.

Modern architecture can be just so dazzling!


This being 9/11, I didn’t want to let the anniversary glide by unnoted. Here’s a post I wrote a few years back. It still holds.

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