Skyscraper Melts Car!


The “Walkie Talkie Building,” a name Londoners have given a popular, distinctively shaped skyscraper, has been in the news this week after reflected sunlight from its mirrored facade melted the side mirrors and panels on a Jaguar XJ parked on a nearby street. (National Geographic News)

Use our resources to understand solar energy and how urban planners weigh the priorities of different city shareholders.

Discussion Ideas

  • The “Walkie Talkie Building” accidentally uses a form of solar power generation, which has unfortunately affected surrounding residents and businesses. Skim our encyclopedic entry on solar energy. Can students identify the type of solar power generation used by the Walkie Talkie Building?
    • The mirrored surface of the Walkie Talkie Building contribute to a form of concentrated solar power (described on page three of the entry). Specifically, the curved design creates a type of parabolic trough. The same phenomenon that destroyed a car’s mirrors can be safely and successfully controlled, and currently helps provide electricity to communities in California, Spain, and India.
  • Read our short “media spotlight” on city planning in Jaipur, India. The “Questions” tab outlines five major issues facing urban planners: zoning, services, infrastructure, transportation, and the environment. How do students think London’s urban planners addressed each of these concerns with the construction of the Walkie Talkie Building?
    • Keep in mind the different stakeholders, and that skyscrapers such as the Walkie Talkie Building often bring increased revenue to the area. (In a related video—about 1:26—local retailers whose buildings suffered minor damage as as a result of the Walkie Talkie’s glare still say they support the building for economic and aesthetic reasons.)
  • The Walkie Talkie Building is not the first skyscraper to impact its local environment. In fact, the architect who designed the building (Rafael Vinoly) also designed the Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada—which was accused of producing a focused-sunlight “death ray” that burned tourists’ hair. Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California, heated neighboring apartment buildings by 8 degrees Celsius (15 degrees Fahrenheit). If students were city planners, how would they address the issues created by the curving, reflective surface of buildings such as these?
    • Not approve them at all? (The solar physicist in the video above—about 1:06—expresses surprise that no one thought of the implication of the building’s design before it was constructed.)
    • Restrict their construction to areas where focused sunlight will not cause damage? (The concert hall was actually built facing a different angle than originally planned, which took glare into consideration.)
    • Adjust the reflective surface of the skyscraper to reduce glare? (This was the solution at the concert hall.)
    • Adjust the surface of the surrounding area to reduce glare? (This is the temporary solution for the Walkie Talkie Building, where a screen has been erected at street level.)

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