The Walkie Talkie Building

Selected by Oliver Wainwright

It was trumpeted as “the building with more up top”, a swollen pint glass of a tower that bulges out as it rises to pack in more offices at the lucrative higher levels—all topped with a Babylonian sky-garden. What the developer of 20 Fenchurch Street in the City of London had not bargained for was, that like every Bond baddie lair, the Walkie-Talkie building would also come with its own lethal death ray.

In the summer of 2013, the concave south-facing facade of the 34-storey tower was found to channel the rays of the sun into a concentrated beam down on to the street below, so hot it melted the bumper of a car, scorched shop carpets and bubbled their paintwork. One passer-by even managed to fry an egg in its heat. But it was not the first time that its architect, the Uruguayan-born Rafael Viñoly, had encountered this problem. His 57-storey Vdara hotel in Las Vegas had exactly the same issue. Also designed with a concave glass facade, it focused the intense Nevada sun down on to the pool terrace below, singeing people’s hair and causing sunloungers to melt. The facade has since been covered with a non-reflective film, which is also being applied to the Walkie-Talkie building.

It is something of a surprise that Viñoly should make this mistake twice, particularly given he has designed a building in China (as yet unbuilt) that exploits this technique to harvest the sun’s energy—where a concave facade would direct the sun’s rays to a thermal store at the top of an obelisk at its focal point. So there may be productive uses in this failure yet.

About Oliver Wainwright

Oliver Wainwright is The Guardian’s architecture and design critic. Trained as an architect, he has worked for a number of practices, both in the UK and overseas, and written extensively on architecture and design for a wide variety of international publications. He is also a visiting critic at several architecture schools.