Glass building London
London’s skyline has a new addition this week: the Walkie Scorchie. Joining the crowded group of glass protrusions, such as the Shard, the Gherkin, and the Cheesegrater, is 20 Fenchurch Street, which had previously been known as the Walkie Talkie, on account of it looking vaguely like a gigantic two-way radio.
But the 37-storey office block, due to be completed next year, has gained a new sinister reputation: the death ray, the fryscraper, the Walkie Scorchie.
Its south-facing concave facade conspires to concentrate and reflect the sun’s rays into an intense beam of shimmery light, hitting the buildings on the opposite side of the road. Along a 30-yard stretch of pavement at Eastcheap – just a Molotov cocktail’s throw from where the Great Fire of 1666 started -London’s burning.
Yesterday afternoon, I was sent out to see if I could fry an egg in the heat, a task that I presumed was impossible on an overcast September day. But, not only was it possible, I had to run out of the death ray that was slowly cooking my egg, because the thinning hairs on my head started to catch fire. The distinctive smell of burning follicles, combined with the sensation of a magnifying glass being shone on my pate, forced me to take cover along the road.
As a result, my finished dish was possibly a little baveuse, as they say in France. A braver soul than me (with thicker hair, I noted jealously) stayed the course and boasted how his egg sandwich was “a little too done for my liking.”
This was accomplished with just intermittent sunshine. Today, due to be a glorious late summer day, could see a brigade of chefs flipping burgers, griddling aubergines and roasting hogs in the astonishing solar flares bouncing off Taser Towers.
On Monday, the air temperature in the concentrated beam, reached 69.8C, which in old money is 158F. To put that in context, the world’s hottest temperature was recorded in Death Valley at 56.7C (134F) over a century ago.
Dr Simon Foster, a solar physicist, accidentally left his measuring equipment in a black bag on the pavement for 10 minutes yesterday. The thermometer read 92.6C (198.7F). “It’s insane. It’s just ridiculous. I’ve never felt heat like it, ” he says.
Forget frying, you could poach an ostrich egg in that heat.
But while the Walkie Scorchie is causing much amusement to curious pedestrians coming to gawp, it is causing serious problems for the row of shops caught in its glare. Ali Akay of Re-Style barbers, opposite the tower, told me he was “too stressed” to talk, but confirmed his carpet was burnt yesterday and many of the plastic bottles of shampoo and hair gel in the window had started to melt.
Diana Pham, assistant manager of the next-door Viet Cafe, admitted she was enjoying the extra trade from office workers swapping their lunchtime sunbed for five minutes of UV from the Towering Inferno. But four slate tiles, which clad the outside of her cafe, have popped off the building in the last two days, and her furniture is starting to cook.
“The chairs started to smell, very, very bad, like they were burning. We thought something terrible was happening, ” she says. The upholstery of the chairs in the windows is starting to gently fricassee.
At the end of last week, the wing mirror, panels and Jaguar badge of a businessman’s car had all melted, after being parked outside the cafe for just two hours. The parking bays are now suspended. How long before an enterprising deckchair supplier and ice lolly merchant moves into the vacant space?
The developers responsible for 20 Fenchurch Street say that the building’s glass cladding has been in place for months, but only caused problems in the last few days, “caused by the current elevation of the sun in the sky.” Er, I think they mean “autumn.” They promise they are working on a solution, which in the short-term is likely to be a temporary awning to protect the shops.
Architectural experts are not impressed and point out that too many modern skyscrapers are causing similar problems.
Three years ago, residents at the Vdara hotel in Las Vegas – also designed by the Rafael Vinoly architectural practice that is behind the Walkie Talkie – complained of being “scorched” by the rays hitting the swimming pool area. The rays were melting their plastic drinking cups, guests claimed.
In Dallas, the Museum Tower, a 42-storey block of apartments, reflected so much light into the neighbouring Nasher Sculpture Center that it threatened artworks in the gallery, scorched plants and caused a two-year dispute between the two parties.
In Leeds, architectural problems have been more serious. Bridgewater Place, the tallest building in Yorkshire, has been held responsible for causing a major wind tunnel – a common problem with skyscrapers. The city council has admitted it has caused “a number of incidents, ” with residents saying they have been knocked off their feet by the force of the gusts.
We are starting to look like Hong Kong. And I’m not sure I like that
A coroner’s inquest into the death of a man crushed by a lorry, which blew over in the wind, has been adjourned.
Philip Oldfield, a lecturer in architecture at University of Nottingham, says: “Glass is a relatively cheap material and quick to put up. But too many developers are still stuck in the mindset of the 1950s that saw glass as futuristic.”
Of the forest of skyscrapers being built in London, not one is being constructed in any material other than glass and steel. Oldfield said he was “flabbergasted” that such an expensive building as the Walkie Talkie, estimated to cost pounds 200 million to construct, had failed to discover the glare during the modelling and testing phase.
Some of the local office workers were fans of the top-heavy building, which will be occupied by a number of companies, appropriately including Kiln and Royal Sun Alliance. Daniel Green, 33, from Godalming, Surrey, who works as a building surveyor around the corner, says: “I like the building. It looks good. But the light coming off it is immense.”
It’s insane. It’s just ridiculous. I’ve never felt heat like it
For most of the Londoners caught in the griddle glare, however, the issue is not so much the heat being created, but the fact that a city full of Wren and Hawksmoor masterpieces is fast becoming a city of glass.
As little as a decade ago, you could turn a corner in the Square Mile and were always promised a glimpse of a Restoration spire amid the modern office blocks. Now, your only guarantee is being blinded by a shaft of light.
Ashley Wall, 25, a headhunter who works on the street, says: “We are starting to look like Hong Kong. And I’m not sure I like that.”