Walkie-Talkie Death Ray
20 Fenchurch Street is a London high-rise office building designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects in 2004, and completed in 2014.
Built on a compact site in the City of London financial district, the building is characterized by the gradually increasing size of its floor plan as it ascends from ground level through 37 stories toward the top floor. The design gives the building a characteristic top-heavy form with concave curving facades on its northern and southern elevations, earning it the nickname ‘The Walkie-Talkie’.
As the building neared completion in 2013, reports first began to appear of a solar glare issue caused by the building's curved facade. Local business owners on Eastcheap, a block to the south of Fenchurch Street, reported that a focused beam of reflected sunlight from the building blistered paintwork, caused fires, and melted cars and bicycles at street level. The beam of light had been powerful enough to set the doormat of a local barber shop on fire, and a Jaguar XJ parked on Eastcheap suffered warped panels and a melted wing mirror and dashboard from the heat. The phenomenon was dubbed the ‘Walkie-Talkie Death Ray’ in widespread press coverage—a reporter from Sky News demonstrated the intensity of the beam by frying an egg in the heat on live TV.
Chris Shepherd, of the Institute of Physics, London, likened the phenomenon to starting a fire with a parabolic mirror. “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."
The building's developers Land Securities and Canary Wharf had parking bays suspended on the street and erected a temporary screen to block the light while they evaluated longer-term solutions. They pointed out that, because the effect depends on a certain elevation of the sun at a particular point of the day, the issue was likely to continue for several hours a day, two to three weeks of the year.
Viñoly Architects had a similar problem in 2010 with their Vdara hotel building in Las Vegas, which also has a southern-facing concave glass facade. A beam of concentrated reflected light created a 10 feet by 15 feet hot spot at ground level by the resort's swimming pool that singed hair and melted plastic cups and bags. The architects had anticipated the problem by installing film that disperses sunlight on the glass facade—one possible solution for 20 Fenchurch Street—however, in the case of the Las Vegas building it was clearly not enough to eliminate the issue.
Visiting London in the days following the emergence of the problem at 20 Fenchurch Street, Rafael Viñoly blamed the issue in part on the nature of the development process in the UK:
"One problem that happens in this town, is the super-abundance of consultancies and sub-consultancies that dilute the responsibility of the designer to the point that you just don't know where you are any more." The original design of the building, the architect pointed out, had featured horizontal sun louvres on its south-facing facade, but these are believed to have been removed during cost-cutting as the project developed.
Viñoly, however, also appeared to have underestimated the amount of sun that London experiences in a given year: "When I first came to London years ago, it wasn't like this," he said. "Now you have all these sunny days. So you should blame this thing on global warming too, right?"
- "20 Fenchurch Street" Rafael Viñoly Architects, retrieved Jan 19, 2022.
- "'Walkie Scorchie' building developers say they will erect temporary scaffold", The Guardian, Sept 3, 2013, retrieved Jan 19, 2022.
- Sky News, "London's 'Walkie Talkie' skyscraper reflects light hot enough to fry an egg - video", The Guardian, Sept 3, 2013, retrieved Jan 19, 2022.
- "Who, what, why: How does a skyscraper melt a car?", BBC News, Sept 3, 2013, retrieved Jan 19, 2022.
- Oliver Wainwright, "Walkie Talkie developers build screen to stop 'death ray'", The Guardian, Sept 4, 2013, retrieved Jan 19, 2022.
- Alan Maimon and Joan Whitely, "Vdara visitor: ‘Death ray’ scorched hair", Las Vegas Review-Journal, Sept 24, 2010, retrieved Jan 19, 2022.
- Oliver Wainwright, "Walkie Talkie architect 'didn't realise it was going to be so hot'", The Guardian, Sept 6, 2013, retrieved Jan 19, 2022.