Inhabitat this week carries the story of one more star architect causing havoc with the unintended consequences of his playfully superficial aesthetic concepts. This time it's Rafael Viñoly’s distinctively curved ‘Walkie Talkie’ building under construction in London, concentrating reflected glare more suitable to solar power station than to an urban building. Glare from 'Walkie Talkie' Skyscraper Melts Parked Cars in London screams the headline, and one's first inclination is to say 'Yea, right, pull the other leg.' Until one reads the detail.
It turns out to be pretty simple.The east and west walls of the new skyscraper are prevented by the use of external louvres from causing coherent reflections. But the north and south facades are left unencumbered by such devices, and deliberately designed with maximum areas of glass to take advantage of the views.The south facade is not only concave in plan but also gently tapered to a subtle curve in section. From photographs, it appears that the combination is particularly successful in directing specular (mirror-like) reflections from a large part of the facade, in concentrated beams to its surroundings.
While the degree of the problem could be described as novel, the basic causes should be hardly surprising. I would have thought that any major building in a city like London would have had to submit a reflectivity study as part of its development approval application.
But there is no shortage of precedent of other prominent architects or iconic buildings having experienced similar problems – think Frank Gehry's Disney Hall. My favourite example is the Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas where concentrated reflections raise poolside temperatures uncomfortably, and undoubtedly shorten the time to an uncomfortable sunburn. That particular case is made all the more interesting by observing not just how the Vdara focuses rays onto its own pool, but also how the reflections from the neighboring Aria Hotel are dispersed outward from its convex surface only to be refocused by the Vdara's concave one.
But let's not get too carried away that this is special knowledge. Anybody who has ever paid any attention at all to lenses and reflectors, in everyday life, should have been able to predict that some version of this problem was going to be associated with any unobstructed, concave reflective surface.
So which part of everyman's experience is not part of the knowledge base of a famous architectural office? Because this is not just an issue of a single creative mind wielding a 6B pencil, it is also that the entire team working on this building remained either blissfully unaware or – as I am fond of suggesting – willfully ignorant during months of design development.In case anyone is in any doubt that we are not talking about trivial little problems, or even the low-grade misery more usually associated with architects getting things wrong, it is worth listening to the video on the Independent newspaper web site here.
The news media make much of melted plastic in cars parked opposite the building, and mention in passing the possibility of blinding glare for motorists. The popular papers and archipop blogs and zines don't even begin to canvass the additional load on cooling systems of surrounding buildings. That will happen when the court cases begin – citing all the times and places that this has happened before. And that is when we will find out that lawyers, unlike architects, do not forget their precedents.
Read more: Glare from 'Walkie Talkie' Skyscraper Melts Parked Cars in London | Inhabitat
More quotes in the Independent, here.
See a video clip case study analysis of solar design problems at the Vdra Hotel, Las Vegas at Gnarly Architecture. It uses a massing model in Rhino and the Heliotrope plugin with Grasshopper to raytrace solar vectors reflecting off the building surfaces into the swimming pool area. OK, so I am a bit nerdy, but I want to make the point that architects do have the tools. Guessing is no longer an option.