The VICE Channels

    The "Fryscaper" Death Ray Shows that Science Gets the Last Laugh

    Written by

    Meghan Neal

    contributing editor

    Any duly mischievous kid knows that you can fry an ant with a magnifying glass angled under the sun just so. It turns out that same phenomenon works exceptionally well if you replace the magnifying glass with a curved, 37-story glass skyscraper.

    So learned the residents of London, home to the newly nicknamed "fryscraper." The ill-designed tower made world headlines a few days ago when sunlight reflecting off its glass façade was beamed down on the street below in a ray so hot it melted a businessman's Jaguar.

    Thanks to record-high September temperatures in London this week, the building created a hot spot that got up to 230o F—beyond the boiling point of water. It far surpassed the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth thus far, which was 134o in Death Valley more than a century ago.

    "They are calling it the 'death ray' because if you go there you might die. It is phenomenal, this thing," the building's architect told the Guardian. While no one's died yet, the spot has become the hottest (heh) tourist attraction in the city. Sweaty visitors have been mobbing the spot to marvel over the nature-defying temps, toast baguettes, and cook eggs in frying pans on the street.

    Nearby shops are getting a boom in business from the sightseers, but it's not without its hazards. Furniture is starting to melt, paint is blistering, and the doormat of a barbershop caught on fire. Yes, London is burning—because of a builder.

    At the heart of the problem is the building's top-heavy, concave design. It was engineered to provide as much floorspace (real estate) as possible, with limited square footage of land.

    The curved glass sides slanting down toward the street create the ant-frying magnifying glass effect. Sun hits the reflective glass side of the building—which is south facing—and the concave shape reflects the sunlight off the glass and channels it into a concentrated beam focused on a small point on the ground.

    "Basically you've got a vast area that's collecting sunlight, and it's focusing it down onto a tiny point, which is where we're standing," solar physicist Dr. Simon Foster explained to a local journalist as the two were standing in the hot spot.

    The Walkie Talkie building—called that because of its curvy shape—is already 37 floors high,  £200 million in, and slated to be finished about a year from now. How does a class A gaffe like this slip through the cracks?

    The building's architect, Rafael Viñoly, offered up some excuses explanations in an interview with Guardian today. He admitted he "knew this was going to happen" and partly blamed the developers for forgoing the horizontal sun louvers on its south-facing facade that were planned in the original design, in order to cut costs.

    He also copped to making "a lot of mistakes with this building," but placed most of the blame on the sun itself. "I didn't know it was going to get so hot," he said. "We judged the temperature was going to be about 36o (97o F). But it's turned out to be more like 72o (162o F)…"You should blame this thing on global warming too, right?"

    The developer firm, Land Securities & Canary Wharf, said the heat ray was formed only when the sun was in a certain position in the sky, which it is for about two hours a day in the summer. I'll last for another two to three weeks, they predict. In the meantime, the firm and the City of London have put up a scaffolding screen to absorb some of the rays, and blocked off three parking spaces around the building, to avoid melting anyone else's car.

    The BBC snapped a photo of a fryscraper-melted car, via Twitter

    The Walkie Talkie skyscraper (since renamed the "Walkie Scorchie") isn't the first time a building has inadvertently fried nearby objects. The last time, in fact, was a Las Vegas hotel also designed by Viñoly. The similarly concave glass building reflected a sun beam that melted lounge chairs and singed a guest's hair. (The architect quipped, "Who cares if you fry somebody in Las Vegas, right?")

    It also probably won't be the last, some architects point out. Modern buildings, with out-of-the box, CAD-enabled designs are ditching brick and concrete for shiny glass. The glass is also more environmentally friendly because it reflects the sun instead of absorbing it, which cuts down the AC. But if we're not careful, the trend could lead to futuristic cities that singe their inhabitants around every corner.

    "As geometries become more complex, what they will do in the real world at a large scale is very difficult to ascertain on a screen or from a 3D-printed model," wrote Architect Magazine. "That doesn’t mean that we should retreat into classicism or brick façades. Nor does it mean that we should make modernist boxes. But we should make buildings that are sensitive in a real way to us and to our world."