When a new building can melt cars, the building is not a good neighbor

Here is a story out of London of a new impressive-looking glass building that has an unfortunate side effect: it focuses the sun on a nearby area and causes destruction.

A new London skyscraper that reflects sunlight at an intensity capable of melting parts of a car became the latest attraction in the city’s financial district on Tuesday as the developers acted to find a quick fix.

The glass-clad tower, dubbed the Walkie Talkie for its distinctive flared shape, was blamed this week for warping the wing mirror, panels and badge on a Jaguar car parked on the street below the 37-storey building that is under construction.

Business owners opposite 20 Fenchurch Street pointed to sun damage on paintwork on the front of their premises and carpet burns. TV crews fried an egg in the sun beam reflected from a concave wall of the tower watched by bemused spectators…

The architect is Uruguayan-born Rafael Vinoly and the building’s concave design means developers can squeeze more money from its larger upper floors, where the views over London promise to be magnificent and rents are higher.

It is not the first time a Vinoly building has been linked to intense rays of sunlight. The Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas allegedly produced intense areas of heat, according to reports in U.S. media three years ago.

Perhaps there is room to wax about humanity’s attempts to tame nature and yet we can’t even master the angle of the sun’s rays.

But, this would also be a good time to note that buildings don’t exist in isolation to their surroundings. I remember talking with an architect a few years ago and talking about how architects might think about the larger social fabric, not just the footprint of their specific development. There is a lot of work that goes into designing big buildings but that can be for naught if the building sticks out from the surrounding area. This doesn’t mean all buildings have to be of the same design or look the same; fitting into particular styles is one part of it (think of the similarities of the tallest buildings in Chicago’s skyline) but so is whether the building is inviting to people passing by. New Urbanists make this argument: Americans have tended to stress the private realm of single-family homes but homes can also be oriented to the neighborhood, helping to promote social interaction through some design choices. Does the new building contribute to or detract from public spaces? This is particularly important in dense urban spaces – London definitely qualifies – where space is at a premium.

If your building is burning nearby areas or blocks the sunlight in drastic ways or presents a monolithic front to what was a lively street, then the building is not being a good neighbor. Looks and maximizing floor space aren’t everything; there is a social dimension to buildings that goes a long way toward whether the building is well regarded for decades or not.

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