Thursday, September 5, 2013

Engineering Fail

Architecture is perhaps the most beautiful form of engineering.  When done properly, it’s a sublime art form that can last for thousands of years.  When it isn’t, it can be disastrous.  It was interesting to read an article about a building in London that has a bit of a problem. 
The building has a rather innocuous name of 20 Fenchurch Street.  The locals refer to it at the Walkie Talkie because its shape resembles an old handheld two-way transceiver.  The problem is the building’s south facing exterior.  Like most modern buildings, it’s mostly a highly reflective glass.  That highly reflective surface has caused problems on the street below.
This isn’t the first time a building has had problems with the physics of light.  The Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles had a similar problem.  The swooping, highly polished exterior looked good on paper, but they hadn’t considered the effect sunlight has on the surrounding buildings when it is magnified by the stainless steel exterior.  The solution was to dull the finish on the building, so it wasn’t as reflective.
courtesy Wikipedia
Obviously, at this stage in construction, it’s far too late to alter the exterior to correct the problem.  It would be prohibitively expensive to correct the curve, so they will have to change the reflective properties of the windows.  It will change the overall intended look of the building, but I imagine that solving this problem could make the building more attractive.
This is the big problem of aesthetics over function.  There is a huge drive to make skyscrapers a distinctive monument.  Even though most are privately owned, they are seen as a source of national pride.  With all the emphasis placed on design, it’s tough to make a functional building that stands out from the crowd.  You hope that this type of death-ray building won’t happen again, and this will be an example to future architects of what not to do.