The London Laser
September 11, 2013

The London Laser

Located not too far from St. Paul’s Cathedral is what Londoners have come to call the “Walkie Talkie Building.” It has a rather interesting design, made with a slightly concave southern side. Visually, it is quite spectacular, especially when contrasted with the rather mundane-looking, strait sided skyscrapers one might compare it to. Unfortunately, its’ unusual design has led to a series of rather unexpected, and problematic, incidents. Namely, sunlight is being reflected off of the building’s side and onto the street below in the same way someone might try to light a bit of kindling using a the sun and a magnifying glass. In short, it’s cooking London.

20 Fenchurch Street, London has truly become a “hot-spot” in the city, and I do mean literally. During the brief period each day in which the sun is in the right spot to create this effect, the street below has had recorded temperatures of anywhere between 199 and 225 degrees Fahrenheit, with average air temperatures in that area being around 122 degrees Fahrenheit. Hot, to say the least. Thus far, there have been several incidents including warped bicycle seats, burning holes in doormats, and even melting the plastic coating of the side mirrors of a Jaguar XJ that was parked beneath the Walkie Talkie Building. Fortunately, these effects only last two to three hours each day, when the sun is in just the right spot to correctly (or incorrectly, as most would see it) focus its rays on the concave building. Thankfully for the people who must frequent this accidental London-laser, this incredible phenomenon will only last for two or three weeks when the sun will have shifted positions in the sky overhead. Unfortunately, this is not a permanent solution, as the same event will likely occur each year when the sun and earth are thusly aligned. But how do you fix a problem like this one? The Walkie Talkie Building is said to have cost 312 million dollars to construct, so simply rebuilding it is not really an option. For now, a protective screen has been put in place that should minimize the dangerous rays, for the time being. The building’s owners and various public officials are all hoping that a more permanent solution can be found before this same event occurs next year.

It is the building’s concave (inward curving) design that makes this effect possible. Strait-faced buildings, as well as those that have a more convex (outward curving) shape, dissipate solar rays more evenly. The concave design focuses them, much in the same way light is focused to form a laser. This in-and-of itself is no mystery of science, as human beings have made use of this phenomenon for centuries. From boy-scouts lighting campfires, to school-yard bullies burning bugs at recess, to the lighting of the Olympic Torch last year using a reflective bowl to the tale of Archimedes setting fire to the Roman fleet some 2,000 years ago.

Many architects have opposed the construction of the Walkie Talkie Building, believing that something like this was bound to happen. Unfortunately, their warnings went unheeded, and now London has to worry about this building acting like a giant magnifying glass looming over them. There have been some shop owners commenting that the sunlight has been nice, and the influx of sunbathers outside has made for a nice change of scenery, so at least it has not been all bad.

Image Credit: Malcolm Chapman /

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