The Walkie Scorchie

What an entertaining day it’s been. The new ‘Walkie Talkie” tower at 20 Fenchurch Street in the City of London by architect Rafael Vinoly for developers Land Securities and Canary Wharf (actually more of a stump than a tower, given its shape and the lofty company it keeps) has been keeping us architecture critics fuming since it was first proposed. Oh, the snarky comments we all made as it actually began to take shape, and seemed even shorter and fatter and more graceless than we’d imagined. But these were as nothing to the storm of bad publicity that has greeted the revelation, as the sun begins to dip in late summer, that this building can ‘melt cars’ and fry eggs on the street. Please welcome the Walkie Scorchie. Which looks nothing like the Sauron’s Tower image above, by the way.

Its concave reflective façade – facing due south, please note– began to act like one of those solar-furnace power stations they have in the south of France and Spain. It caught the sun – still strong in early September – at just the right angle to focus its energy down at the street below. Business newspaper City A.M first noted the problem on August 28 but it was not until September 2, when they reported people talking about parts of their parked cars and vans warping and melting in the heatray, that the story went viral. By today, September 3, they had a copper-bottomed scoop on their hands, and the developers had some damage limitation to do. Which they started by apparently blaming the position of the sun, not the position of the building.

The call went out. All architecture critics were mobilised. All news teams were sent to Fenchurch Street. The temperatures being recorded at the hot spot ranged from 70 degrees Celsius to a scarcely credible 90 degrees. City AM’s James Waterson, the reporter who has picked up this story and run with it, was filmed frying an egg in a pan on the sidewalk and eating it in a bap, valiantly wearing a dark suit, his hair scorching. And I found myself in the Sky newsroom trying to explain why.

Greed, I said. The building widens towards the top in order to cram in more large floorplates and so maximise development return – though there will also be a large conservatory on the roof. The form of the building was then modelled into its concave southerly façade, presumably an attempt by Vinoly to reduce its apparent bulk. They also modelled the sun angles, we gather. They think it’s only for a few days a year, if the sun is out on those days, that this hotspot will occur. There’s speculation in the Twittersphere that the original design of the building had sun-shading louvres, and whether or not these were value-engineered out. I don’t know.

What I do know is that this story has cheered everyone up enormously. We like it when buildings go unexpectedly wrong , so long as nobody is hurt. We loved the Foster/Arup wobbly Millennium Bridge of a decade ago, and this is if possible an even better story. Professionals have been embarrassed, their technical wizardry proved fallible. No doubt remedial measures will be put in place, as they were with the now over-rigid bridge. But for ever and a day, it will now be the Walkie Scorchie. Cab drivers and tourist bus and riverboat guides will never forget it. Perhaps a filtered ray will be allowed to remain, and druids will gather here in early September, as they do for the summer solstice at Stonehenge. Slowly it will become legend, part of London’s story. But don’t let the heat ray distract you from this: it’s a poor piece of architecture for one main reason, simple floorspace greed.

© Hugh Pearman, September 3, 2013.

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