20 Fenchurch Street – London’s ‘DeathRay’
September 10, 2013
Samuel Fu and Ridvan Bruss
20 Fenchurch Street is known as the “Walkie Talkie” building, or “The Pint” due to its distinct design intentions involving curving of the building sides for orientation purposes. This design unintentionally formed what is essentially a parabolic mirror which creates a focused spot of glare. How harmless is a patch of glare? While glare might seem insignificant, this concentrated beam of light has managed to inflict damage to its surroundings. As a result, we ask the question: How far can the experimental envelope be pushed, and why push it so far?
The vision that architect Rafael Viñoly had for 20 Fenchurch Street is embodied in the building’s slogan: “A smarter design, however you look at it.”(Wharf PLC 2012 ) Intended to become a new landmark for London, the building’s design expands in floor space at the higher floors in order to maximize the most valuable real estate. This gives the building a top heavy feel, giving the effect of a balloon rising out of the London skyline. However, this building places perhapse the largest emphasis on the views from the building. For example, the top floors of the building contain a public park which allows for a view of the cityscape. The building’s design was also intended to direct people’s vision towards several key buildings in proximity. It utilizes two pairs of curves, one pair being convex and the other concave, the latter physically orienting the occupant’s views towards Renzo Piano’s London Shard, one of the highest skyscrapers in the UK, located just across the river.
A curve can be used in many ways. In architecture, curves are used to create graceful and fluid relationships with the environment. However, in the field of optics, curves are used to focus beams of light towards a particular point. So what happens when the graceful curves of a building inadvertantly employs optical magnification of the sun? For several days, the news was filled with reports of damaged bike seats, scorched flooring, shattered tile, and damage to parked cars such as melted plastic parts and warped doors. For demonstration purposes, food has even been cooked under the intense heat created by the focused ray of light as one journalist notes that he has “even managed to fry an egg with the startlingly bright rays.” (Duell 2013)
Rafael Viñoly has had a similar problem with the Vdara in Las Vegas, which also had a curved glass face. He mistakenly thought that the potential problem with 20 Fenchurch Street could be solved by application of an antireflective film on the south facing windows. Thus, more rudimentary efforts were made to avoid more damage, such as temporary street screening.
Buildings are expensive and semi-permanent. An argument can be made that it is not worth it to experiment with new architectural methodology. There are several advantages associated with sticking to what we know. For example, the risk of something going wrong is greatly reduced. 20 Fenchurch Street is an example of a rather minor mistake. Experimentation with construction methods could lead to immediate or gradual structural failure, possibly rendering the building inoccupiable and useless, something that the building developers would not be able to afford. In addition to reduced risk, building with pre-existing methods is much cheaper and less time consuming as building technique already exists. Often, radical designs call for undeveloped construction which must be tested, sometimes built and then dismantled because of faulty performance. However, because complexity is reduced in existing construction styles, building construction is straightforward. In addition, there is a preservation of architecture. Every region of the world has its own style of architecture which is culturally important. By experimenting with different modes of architecture, new methods are being introduced into the existing history. This is quite unsettling for some people.
On the other side of the argument, advances in architecture should be made. The technology and methods will be furthered, often times leading to cheaper and fasterbuilding methods. One example of this is reinforced concrete. While radical and most likely expensive at the time of its introduction, it now allows for rapid and cheap construction of many different types of structures. When architecture is looked upon as an artform, advances are benificial in progressing the artistic concepts.
The conclusion drawn from this case study is that architecture should advance despite possible conflict, as the conflict is necessary for growth. It is very much like the idea that in order to learn, mistakes must be made in order to form a basis for change. Although 20 Fenchurch Street is a second failed attempt from Rafael Viñoly, it is highly unlikely that someone else will repeat the same mistake after the widespread media coverage. Therefore, the problem has been mostly eliminated from future building designs. This event may also inspire other architects to be more vigorous in their testing of building designs, testing more than just architectural ideas, but rather other concerns from different disciplines. Much like a child learning to ride a bicycle for the first time, failures will likely result in the process of advancing architecture.
Canary Wharf (Company). “Homepage.”20 Fenchurch Street. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2013. <http://www.20fenchurchstreet.co.uk>
20 Fenchurch Street website that contained information about the design intentions, diagrams, and photos.
Canary Wharf. 20 Fenchurch Street. London: landsecuritieslondon, 2012. Print.
Brochure for the 20 Fenchurch Street building. Details of design intentions, plans, and other details are included.
Craven, Jackie. “Gehry Responds to Concert Hall Heat – Fixing Controversial Design.” Architecture and House Styles and Building Design. <http://architecture.about.com/od/ideasapproaches/ss/Controversy-DisneyHall.htm (accessed September 23, 2013)>.
Article describing the problems associated with Frank Ghery’s Disney Concert Hall. Light reflections off of the polished metal surface led to rising temperatures in surrounding buildings and glare which affected drivers. The solution was a two step sanding process on panels which created the most problems.
comPADRE. “Ray Diagrams for Concave Mirrors – Case A.” The Physics Classroom. <http://www.physicsclassroom.com/mmedia/optics/rdcma.cfm (accessed September 23, 2013)>.
Light diagrams which provided insite about the physics behind optics and how the 20 Fenchurch Street south facing wall reflects light and focuses it.
Duell, Mark. “Walkie Talkie building is melting bicycles: Light reflected from under-construction City skyscraper scorches seat | Mail Online.” Home | Mail Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2013. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2409710/Walkie-Talkie-building-melting-bicycles-Light-reflected-construction-City-skyscraper-scorches-seat.html>.
The developers of the “Walkie Talkie” building have been blamed for damage to paintwork, shattered tile, singed fabric, and melted car parts. This is all due to light being reflected off of the curved surface of the building which focuses the light into an intense blinding spot.
Gower, Patrick. “London Walkie Talkie Owners Probe Tower’s Car-Melting Ray – Bloomberg.” Bloomberg – Business, Financial & Economic News, Stock Quotes. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2013. <http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-09-03/london-walkie-talkie-owners-probe-tower-s-car-melting-light-ray.html>.
The “Walkie Talkie” building has been blamed for causing damage to cars and other objects in London. It is estimated that the phenomenon will last for two or three weeks and will eventually find a permanent solution in a glass finish which will diffuse light instead of reflecting it.
Neal, Leon. “How Sunlight Reflected Off a Building Can Melt Objects.” Daily Nature and Science News and Headlines | National Geographic News . N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2013. <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/09/130904-walkie-talkie-building-london-melts-sunlight-physics-science/>.
The “Walkie Talkie” building has a major design flaw which has caused it to melt vehicles. The concave surface of its glass faces concentrates light into a single spot. Temperatures in excess of 200 °F have been measured in particular locations within the light reflection.
Wainright, Oliver. ” The Walkie-Talkie skyscraper, and the City’s burning passion for glass | Oliver Wainwright | Comment is free | theguardian.com .”Latest news, world news, sport and comment from the Guardian | theguardian.com | The Guardian . N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2013. <http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/03/walkie-talkie-skyscraper>.
While groups such as Unesco and English Heritage opposed the design of 20 Fenchurch Street, it went through the planning process by Peter Rees who has also approved of several other radically designed buildings. He too however, though that the curvature of the south facing side was not the best idea, but the idea of a public garden at the top was just too tantalizing.