We now have two buildings that fry stuff: the Museum Tower in Dallas, which reflects too much light into the Nasher Sculpture Garden next door, and the Walkie Talkie Building, officially called 20 Fenchurch, which does Dallas one better by melting parts of cars in London. And while Walt Disney Concert Hall never fried Los Angeles, some of its curves did blind neighbors before the owner dulled the sheen. Who knew architects could be that good at lighting things up?
The first lesson from all this is that our ability to imagine and build forms that were never before possible through the magic of computer-assisted design and construction is far outstripping our ability to discipline that exuberance. Some of the effects—one assumes unintended—might have been modeled and thus prevented. But by no means all of them. 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. The aesthetic question of what something will look like in the real world is one thing, though I do not believe we have developed an ability to have these designs respond to either our bodies and our social lives or to existing context in a manner as sexy as the forms themselves. But doing damage through unexpected consequences is a whole other matter.
The worst aspect of these cases is not only that the buildings are unsuccessful because of those failures, but that it confirms to everybody who is not an architect (although it comes as a surprise to the discipline, that turns out to be quite a few people) that architects are absentminded, sloppy, and incompetent. The snarkiness of the comments that have appeared at the end of the various articles about the Dallas and London incidents are a crowdsourced testament to the hatred a large part of the public harbors against architects and their products. These incidents make it more difficult for good buildings to appear.
That doesn’t mean that we should retreat into classicism or brick façades. Nor does it mean that we should make modernist boxes. They are often as bad as their parametrically designed cousins, and they often get no further than camouflaging their boring and predictable nature with the kind of refined details only architects love. But we should make buildings that are sensitive in a real way to us and to our world.
Unfortunately, Rafael Viñoly’s buildings are almost never either. His creations are among the most banal, badly organized, and insensitively scaled of any designed by a name-brand architect. The Walkie Talkie is no exception (though I have to admit I have only seen it while under construction, about eight months ago). Its massive bulk is only all the more apparent because of Vinoly’s Titanic carving of what is otherwise a standard office building with an icy skin and fussy appendages. The building manages to look bigger than it really is while drawing attention to its pomposity through those alien and alienating curves.
According to the always excellent critic Hugh Pearman, the Walkie Talkie’s killing-ants-with-a-magnifying-glass problem stems from a combination of trying to maximize floor plates at the higher levels, while spending as little as possible on the less desirable middle floors, and a decision not to use sun louvers on a façade that faces directly south. If this is true, these decisions are again not only crimes against good taste, but also against the environment.
The Walkie Talkie was a bad building before it fried a Jaguar (and made us think what our cars are made of these days along the way). It is still a bad building. Putting louvers on the façade might help, but that's applying lipstick to a very large pig.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.