In London this week, a parabolic "death ray" of sunshine—reflected off of London's newest skyscraper—is destroying luxury cars, starting fires, and frying eggs for comedic effect. It's a sensational story, but this isn't the first time an architectural laser has literally burned the hair off of passersby.
The offending tower—better know as 20 Fenchurch Street, or "the Walkie-Talkie"—was designed by Rafael Vinoly, a Uruguayan architect based in New York. What some outlets (though not Wikipedia editors) failed to mention? This isn't architect Rafael Vinoly's first time at the architectural death ray rodeo. Back in 2010, guests at the newly-completed Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas reported that the reflection from the glassy facade was "singeing the hair" of swimmers at the adjacent pool.
Even outside of Vinoly's oeuvre, buildings that act like lasers are not unheard of. In fact, there's practically a whole legal industry devoted to them. Don your sunglasses and let's take a look.
Frank Gehry's £175 million concert hall—smack dab in the heart of downtown LA—was the proverbial shot heard round the world for architectural death rays. In 2004, a group of condo owners located directly adjacent to the shimmering facade reported that the glare was boosting the temperatures in their homes by nine degrees (a hotspot of 60 degrees celsius was also reported).
Eventually, the mirror finish on 883 of the facade panels was sanded down to a fine matte—dulling the glare to the tune of roughly £58,000. "You couldn't even see and then the furniture would get really hot," one resident said at the time. "You would have to literally close the drapes and you'd still feel warmth in the house."
Image: Frederick M. Brown/Getty.
"I'm sitting there in the chair and all of the sudden my hair and the top of my head are burning," reported a lawyer visiting Vinoly's Las Vegas hotel in 2010. "I'm rubbing my head and it felt like a chemical burn. I couldn't imagine what it could be."
Ironically, Vinoly's design team had anticipated the problem—and during construction, the windows were covered in a light-absorbing solution that would theoretically allay the potential reflections. Yet it wasn't enough—the glare reportedly raised the temperature more than 20 degrees on intense days. Eventually, the hotel was forced to put up a sail-like shade over the scorched remains of the pool.
This is by far the most upsetting of all—because it's actually destroying important things (beyond fancy cars, I mean). This 42-story, £128 million residential tower was completed in January, directly adjacent to one of the loveliest buildings in Dallas: Renzo Piano's fantastic Nasher Sculpture Gallery. Within weeks, glare from the condo tower had killed off the Nasher's bamboo foliage, raising the temperature as much as four degrees. Soon, it was altering the precise solar conditions inside the galleries. The final blow came when James Turrell, the light artist, declared his permanent installation at the Nasher "destroyed," and requested that it be removed.
That was only the beginning. After refusing to make alterations to the tower's facade, the developers of the building waged an all-out PR war against the Nasher. That included launching a website claiming no changes were needed, as well as making up fake Twitter accounts to tweet out support for the developers. City council has since amended the building code, but the problem of Museum Tower remains. Generally, death rays are funny stuff. This, less so.
Finally, we're back to this week's notable parabolic screw-up, which has raised temperatures to 70 degrees celsius in certain spots. According to The Independent, the glare isn't exactly due to a design flaw—it's due to the fact that a detail from Vinoly's original plans was "value engineered" out of the design during construction.
Originally, a series of thin horizontal balconies were intended to act as screen to shield the glare, but those balconies never saw the light of day, so to speak. As a result, London officials have blocked off parking spots and now, erected a temporary scaffold at street level that'll remain for the next few weeks. According to officials, the glare is likely to remain for about another month, at which point it'll disappear. Until next year!
Lead image: Leon Neal/AFP via Getty Images.