Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
Dangerous Skyscrapers Channel Wind and Sun, Topple Pedestrians and Start Fires (99percentinvisible.org)
207 points by matthberg 246 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 88 comments

Stephen avenue in Calgary has some structures that were built to prevent wind gusts between buildings[1]. The street has a lot of foot traffic and that area became windy after the two skyscrapers on either side were constructed. Not sure about the cost to the city, but they're interesting to look at and they seem to achieve their goal.

[1] https://www.google.ca/maps/@51.0456499,-114.0704853,3a,75y,7...

Some more info on the trees: from Calgary Downtown Association [1], some excellent photographs from various sources [2][3][4], and from the structural engineer [5].

Sadly, the architects (Cohos Evamy, merged and renamed DIALOG) don't have a feature on their website or in an archive I could find.

[1] http://www.calgarydowntown.com/saw/Stephen-avenue-info/steph... [2] https://christophermartinphotography.com/2010/10/22/the-tree... [3] http://calgary.skyrisecities.com/news/2016/10/steel-trees-st... [4] http://www.tboake.com/steel/bankers_hall.html [5] http://astint.on.ca/bankers-hall-galleria-trees-sculpture/

That's fascinating. I've always wished my city had things like these. Trees would be nice, but they grow slowly and just when they start being big enough to thrive, look good and be useful, some official decides they're dangerous or happen to be exactly on top of a new roadway. So I guess a cold dead mechanical tree is the best we could get.

I wonder if this may be because of the weather, but why can't you grow vines on the metal trees to make it "green"? Or some sort of wall hugging vegetation. I mean, sure its not the same as a tree, but at least it might look nicer.

My guess is that the vanes on the top do something to disrupt the wind and stop it from reaching street level at such high speeds. The vines growing between the vanes could prevent this effect from happening.

I am not sure vines can survive Calgary winter.

Trees are also not as strong as steel, and Calgary has fairly intense winters (as far as populated parts of North America go).

Thanks for sharing! If I were to see these structure on the streets I would brush them off as some funky art projects. Now I wonder what else I have been missing...

I've walked under these dozens of times and never realized why they were there. I suspect most Calgarians have any clue.

Wow! I never knew that that was what those were intended for. As a kid I would spend a lot of time around there and I always assumed they were purely decorative.

Las Vegas condo/hotel Vdara, one of the highrises in the City Center development, was designed by the same architect as the Walkie Talkie -- Rafael Viñoly -- and exhibits the same solar convergence phenomenon; affectionately called the 'Vdara Death Ray' [1][2][3].

In a 2013 interview with the Guardian [4], he claims there was not much he could do about the Vdara, as the customer specifically wanted an arc-shaped building; in fact the the City Center development has several sweeping arc forms, like in the neighboring Aria -- but the concavity of the Aria's highrises aren't oriented south to converge the midday sun [5], whereas the Vdara aims them right at the pool deck [2].

For both Vdara and the Walkie Talkie, he claims to have been aware of the phenomenon going into the design but lacked the ability to correctly calculate the impact. Further, if claims are true, for the Walkie Talkie he said: "(...) the original design of the building had featured horizontal sun louvres on its south-facing facade, but these are believed to have been removed during cost-cutting as the project developed." [4]

[1] https://www.reviewjournal.com/news/vdara-visitor-death-ray-s... [2] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1315978/Las-Vegas-ho... [3] http://www.businessinsider.com/the-vdara-death-ray-hotel-is-... [4] https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/sep/06/walkie-... [5] http://www.openstreetmap.org/#map=17/36.10834/-115.17640

Ha Ha! Welcome to the world of Starchitects. For a building like the Walkie Talkie, Vinõly would have been personally involved only at the very beginning. The question of who is actually responsible for removing the mitigation measures from the 'Walkie Talkie' is likely to be very complicated, depending on the procurement route taken by the client. It is quite likely that a 'Design Build' contract was used for the Walkie Talkie, where the concept architect hands over the design to a construction firm who then employs a completely separate team of architects and engineers to do the detailed construction design. The building is documented in the 'employers requirements' by the concept architects and then this package of information is handed over the contractor to fill out the details. I don't know how Vinõly works, but its possible his firm hands over the employers requirements quite early in the process and the problem solved by the fins wasn't clearly communicated to the design build contractor who then removed them to save money once Vinõly was no longer involved. This would explain why he was so blasé about the known problem with the concave design.


> The question of who is actually responsible for removing the mitigation measures

Same as the design phase. It is guaranteed that engineers would have foreseen and been able to calculate the heat intensity.

They just didn't have enough influence or ownership of the problem.

>Same as the design phase. It is guaranteed that engineers would have foreseen and been able to calculate the heat intensity.

Not the case. For the walkie talkie it was evaluated and the design (including location and it's orientation) were passed by a consultancy for a bunch of environmental items.

Seemingly that wasn't the case and they spent £13m retrofitting shutters. AFAIK the main contractor went after the consultancy for the money but I can't for the life of me find any references right now.

> lacked the ability to correctly calculate the impact

And didn't bother to get the ability either.

If you design a building that is literally a threat to public safety, and then you design a second building that poses the exact same threat, you should lose all professional licensure. If you do any work in that field again, you should be charged with criminal negligence or something similar.

"The developers have blamed the problem on "the current elevation of the sun in the sky," a position Viñoly seems inclined to share."

Like that was a surprise.

I just googled him. He's super famous. So he probably has that Frank Lloyd Wright thing going for him, where his buildings have glaring flaws but they are let off the hook because their work is so acclaimed.

On the topic of FLW, I've visited a number of his houses. One of my friends growing up lived in a Wright house. I've visited Wright's personal house, Taliesen. In my opinion, Wright is not really an architect.

I consider Wright more of a sculptor or an artist. His designs are terribly impractical, and are not versatile in the least. Additionally, he didn't account for the limitations of the materials he was using to build his structures. So his buildings tend to require a lot of repairs, and many have structural problems, leaks, as well as general safety issues.

Wright wasn't the least bit apologetic about any of these things, and it seems like Viñoly shares the same overwhelming egotism.

On a somewhat hilarious note, when I went to visit Taliesin, there were several rooms which I thought were poorly designed, but had an element that I considered a saving grace. In literally every single instance, it was something his wife had added/altered after his death.

So, point being, I think that when you allow an egotistical architect to design something without any sort of editorial limitation, you probably end up with a worse product overall.

> I just googled him. He's super famous. So he probably has that Frank Lloyd Wright thing going for him, where his buildings have glaring flaws but they are let off the hook because their work is so acclaimed.

Architecture as a discipline has a real problem with this. Far too little attention is given to usability and the prosaic question of how a building turns out in practice; there's far too much back-slapping about "vision".

I remember reading back in 2004 a suggestion that MIT should force its architecture students to study in the building designed for the CS students and let the CS students have the nice architects' building. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_and_Maria_Stata_Center vs https://foursquare.com/v/mit-building-7-rogers-building/4ab9... (Amusingly MIT sued Frank Gehry over the building later due to flaws, but it's been settled.)

Yeah, that Stata Center building is such a joke. It makes me mad, and I haven't even set foot in the building. Such a waste of resources and yet another example of what happens when you try to push form over function.

I'd say they've successfully deconstructed what it means to be a building though.

If I remember correctly, my university constructed a new building for the architecture department but it was so impractical they gave it to computer science instead.

My university had a building for the architecture department that was originally designed to be completely covered in vines so as to "hide" the actual architecture of it, to clear the students minds of preconceived notations, etc, etc.

Unfortunately, this was in the late 60s, so the concrete they used turned out to be poisonous to plant life, so no vines ever covered the building, there were some sad scrawny things in a corner, but that's it. And the underlying building was of course really ugly, so, yeah, that was a pretty big fail:


That building singlehandedly represents everything that's wrong with the profession that used to be architecture.

Fact: the building was so ugly that it self-ignited.

I did computer science, almost all our lectures and classes were around the gorgeous castle courtyard. We pitied the architecture students... :-)

There's a great BBC TV series (and book) which covers exactly this topic: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_Buildings_Learn https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvEqfg2sIH0

Same with the Sydney Opera House. The original design had shells flatter to the ground. They were brought more upright for engineering reasons.

I think the result actually looks a lot better.

FWIW, all these points can apply to IT architects :-(

> So his buildings tend to require a lot of repairs, and many have structural problems, leaks, as well as general safety issues.

The Fallingwater House has some (really fancy) cantilever balconies, and even though the contractor building them silently doubled the cross section of the reinforcing steel -- in disagreement with FLW -- they were still too weak.

Fallingwater is aesthetically pleasing but belies FLW's poor understanding of structural engineering of the very materials he liked to use.

It was the client, Edgar J. Kaufmann (1885-1955) and his wife Lillian Sarah Kaufmann (?-1952) who started to second-guess some of Wright's decisions early on to the benefit of the house [1]; when Mr. Kaufmann shared some of his concerns with Wright he took them as a personal attack [2]. Mr. Kaufmann proceeded to hire structural engineers after the construction finished to get a second opinion, and continued to personally measure the deflection of the balcony as the years progressed. In my opinion the house is as much of credit to Kaufmann as it is to FLW, as without his informed skepticism the house would have been more famously remembered as a disaster than as a crowning achievement.

[1] http://old.post-gazette.com/lifestyle/20011208lowry1208fnp3.... [2] https://failures.wikispaces.com/Fallingwater

The Kaufmann's had great taste. They commissioned the two greatest (IMO) modern american residences, Falling Water w/Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs w/Richard Neutra.


There was a famous incident with the Johnson Wax building, where Wright had designed Some concrete support columns which the building code authority was reluctant to approve, so Wright tested one by loading it up with 60 tons of sand, 5 times the structural load it was required to bear.


The difference being that FLW's designs are beautiful while Viñoly designed the walkie talkie. Seriously, I see that monstrosity on a regular basis and it's super awful. Guy should be kicked out of aesthetics club.

The First Rule of Aesthetics Club is that you'll know when you see it.

Not everyone agrees on aesthetics though.

That being said, I find FLW's designs more aesthetically pleasing.

I spent two nights at the Inn at Price Tower:

They offered two types of rooms: a standard room and a two-story loft. My partner and I stayed in both--the standard the first night to save money, and the loft the second night.

I haven't seen the interior of other Wright buildings, but I _loved_ Price Tower. I'm no architect, and I'm sure there's plenty to criticize, but for something that was first conceived in the 1920s and built in the early 1950s, it's amazing. (I'm not sure how much the final draft was changed, but AFAIU the design is substantially the same as conceived of in the '20s.)

One noteworthy thing about the loft apartment in Price Tower is that it was loaded with electrical outlets. I distinctly remember our docent discussing the quantity and spacing of outlets, and IIRC those were a part of the 1920s design. There was a surfeit of places to plug in our chargers. And the general layout of the loft was very comfortable and pleasing, not to mention the incredible views.

I'd also note that the building seemed to be kept in fairly good condition. Given it's remote location, complex architectural features, meager financial support, and general public disinterest until recently, I doubt it's a complete maintenance nightmare. (AFAIK it's not killing people or setting them afire.) That said, the design clearly pushed the envelope, perhaps even by 1950s standards, so I'm sure it keeps some lucky building maintenance engineers busy and their employer stressed.

> On a somewhat hilarious note, when I went to visit Taliesin, there were several rooms which I thought were poorly designed, but had an element that I considered a saving grace. In literally every single instance, it was something his wife had added/altered after his death.

Sounds like Frank Lloyd Wright was the George Lucas of architecture.

That is exactly who I compare him to.

If you're in Silicon Valley, visit the Marin Civic Center, sometimes called the Martian Embassy. That's one of Wright's later projects. It looks vaguely Star Wars. George Lucas, who lives in Marin, got some of his ideas from it.

I'm in Chicago, hence the plethora of Wright buildings I've been able to visit. (Plus I went to school in Wisconsin)

The Marin Civic Center looks super familiar, I guess is probably because I've seen Gattaca 3 or 4 times. I'll definitely check it out if I'm ever in the area.

I'd highly recommend the tours at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and the one at the Johnson and Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine Wisconsin if you ever get the opportunity. The J&J is largely a long marketing pitch for the Johnson family, but the buildings are fascinating. Taliesin is a lot more academic, and I learned a lot on that tour.

Taliesin West is probably more accessible to SV, and I'd assume the tour is quite good.

his buildings have glaring flaws

One of them being that they tend to be hideous

Shouldn't you already be charged with criminal negligence for the second building?

Naive question, but wouldn't using a hyperbolic arc instead of a parabolic arc completely solve the issue?

Or have windows that don't reflect the sun downwards.

Then you're shooting death rays in the sky, endangering aircraft like a thousand laser pointers.

Inverse square law. Any aircraft close enough to be affected are having a bad problem anyway.

Yeah but that's with respect to the focal point. The focal point could be a good ways up in the air.

And then London architects took care to reproduce this features religiously: http://uk.businessinsider.com/death-ray-skyscraper-is-wreaki...

Actually that building was designed by Viñoly too. He seems to have a personal preference for building death rays.

He seems pretty chill about it: "When it was spotted on a second design iteration, we judged the temperature was going to be about 36 degrees (Celsius). But it's turned out to be more like 72 degrees. They are calling it the 'death ray', because if you go there you might die. It is phenomenal, this thing." [1]

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/sep/06/walkie-...

That's what happens when a city government doesn't protect what to private owners are externalities. The owners of the building couldn't care less, and the architect gets the benefit of free publicity.

From the original article: 'fryscrapers'. I laughed.

I always thought it would be interesting to set up a slightly convex mylar sheet at the base of the Vdara. Perhaps innocently as a 'shade' under the extra sun. The results of which would be an extended Schmidt-Cassegrain type mirror arrangement that would deliver somewhere around 10x the solar insolation into the unfortunate condo at the focal point of the sheet.

It would be irresponsible to say the least, and have terrible optics, but it appeals to my darker side.

I used to cycle past the Walkie Talkie building on my daily commute - the draughts were so strong that on windy days it almost took me off my bike. And I have actually seen it knock people over.

The worst thing about it though has to be the Skygarden at the top. It was built on some public space, so as part of the agreement, the builders had to include some 'public' space at the top. Unlike most public spaces I've been to however, you have to book in advance, are not allowed in groups over a certain size and have to go through full airport-style security. That's fitting however because when you're up there, the space has all the charm of an airport terminal. And, due to the way the girders are aligned, there's not even much of a view. Which is a stunning achievement really.

The best feature has to be the fancy restaurant which takes up most of 'public' space. It's at the top of one of the taller buildings in London, right in the middle of the City and you can't see out.

A popular 1960s mistake was the open-column lobby floor, where the entrance level is smaller than the building above it. The air hitting the building is forced through the open area of the entrance level. This worked out OK in Brasilia, where a breeze was welcome, but it was terrible in cold, windy locations.

Embarrassingly, MIT's Green Building was built like that.

Designed in part by I.M. Pei of popping windows in the Hancock building fame. Apparently, a revolving door had to be installed because sometimes people were physically unable to open the door because of the wind tunnel effect (or they had to enter through other buildings and take a tunnel). [1]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Building_(MIT)

ADDED: There was even an MIT Musical Theater Guild filkish number way back at the dawn of time :-) about not being able to get into the Green Building to the tune of Charlie on the MBTA.

Chicago has a few of those as well, though the Kluczynski and Dirksen Federal Buildings were designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and the Daley Center by Jacques Brownson.

Allegedly (back when I was an undergraduate in the 1980s) the calder sculpture outside was designed to deflect the wind to stop this problem. A great story, though I never found out if it was true or not.

Wikipedia says no. It's too far from the building, and too small.

The Grande Arche de la Défense just outside Paris has similar problems, and glass panels rise out of the ground during high winds to shield pedestrians.

I live next to a skyscraper (about 100m tall/330 feet - just barely meets the definition of skyscraper) that channels the wind past itself through this narrow chokepoint.

Anyone who rides their bike through the area during even moderate winds is blown off, and when heavy winds pick up the place is truly awesome.

I've gone there, covered in poofy jackets so I bounce when I land, and just let myself get blown away. It's tremendously fun. There's a large concrete gap where buses/trams go, maybe the width of a road (maybe 24 feet?) and the wind has picked me up on one side and set me down on another. (Occasionally requires jumping in the air first.) But if I want to get back home? I've got to wait hours, or walk in a large detour around the building.

Care to share where that is? (Asking for a friend.)

Hahahaha I'd rather not share my exact location publicly on HN as I live quite close to the building. But if anyone would like to know, my email is in my profile, and I'll be happy to explain how to get to the building with public transit, other things to do in the area, and how to get inside it if you'd like.

(The building is in the Netherlands.)

If you (or anyone else) wants to try this for yourself, simply find a place where wind is channeled through a small-ish opening. Small in this context just means "smaller than the walls around it" so even a house-sized opening can work. Searching Twitter/Google for complaints about wind or getting knocked down by the wind can help.

I don't know the other person, but I studied at TUD which has a similar sounding phenomenon (can't be too uncommon in the NL; it's windy and flat). There's a tall, flat and narrow building around which wind can really rip. I've experienced it personally and it can be quite something during bad weather.

Here's google streetview (you can even zoom into the high wind warning sign):


Here are a couple videos:




Software engineering often gets criticized as being so error prone compared to "real" engineering. These buildings demonstrate​, that when you combine marketing, egos, a desire for novelty, and ignorance of constraints you can get massive disasters, just like with software.

I think it would be cool to use some of these things deliberately. If you can design the building to generate 80mph winds, why not put a turbine in their path? If the building is going to focus the sun into a "death ray", point it at a Stirling engine.

This sort of exists already, quite common. Roof turbine vents: https://www.google.com/search?q=roof+turbine+vent&source=lnm...

Aren't those specifically used for ventilation though? I think comment you're replying to was thinking turbines to generate power

Maybe... he wasn't specific. I was thinking bigger as that wind energy could be used for things other than electricity generation.

Something related, the Castle House in London[0]. Didn't confirm but I believe it didn't work in the end.

[0] http://intelligenttravel.nationalgeographic.com/2007/09/14/e...

My favorite one of these in the John Hancock Tower in Boston which had to have its entire facade replaced and was known as the Plywood Palace while the work was underway: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/article/2014/07/29/plywoo....

Even to this day the winds around the base of the JHT can be obscenely high. I used to walk past it often from Back Bay station to my apartment down Stuart St. and the block it occupies when it lightly rains or snows it feels like a Hurricane vs the blocks immediately before and after it.

Bridgewater Place in Leeds (UK) has had at least one death caused by the wind tunnel effect now and regularly has to have road closures around it when it gets gusty (though living in the UK, at least bad weather isn't often a problem /s)

edit: should have read the article before commenting, would you believe this is one of the first examples. Apologies for what turns out to be an entirely unnecessary comment.

There is a building in Dallas called Museum Tower that has a reflective glare that effectively destroyed a popular piece at a near by museum.

Note that the artist declared it destroyed for aesthetic reasons. It wasn't burnt or melted as far as I can tell.

This sounds fascinating, do you remember when this happened?

2012 This article has some good details on the story and a lot of drama around the project at the beginning https://www.dmagazine.com/publications/d-magazine/2012/may/m... It still hasn't been resolved. https://www.dallasnews.com/arts/museums/2016/09/25/fights-fa...

> It still hasn't been resolved

.. and now we know why. It's politically impossible. If anyone else owned the building it would be fixed or the owners sued.

> "The Dallas Police & Fire Pension System, which had earlier made a small investment in the Museum Tower project, announced that it would jump in with both feet and finance the entire thing, all $200 million of it"

The plaza and cathedral of Strasbourg (which you can see at the very beginning of one of the Sherlock Holmes movies starring R. Downey Jr.) has been engineered to channel wind around the cathedral, instilling a devilish, chilling feel and making the cathedral stand out as a safe haven.

> Non-reflective film has since been added, but not before the building earned a new nicknames like “Walkie-Scorchie”

You can always count on the Brits for coming up with great names for things.

So are Brits good a coming up with nicknames, or are they simply more apt to build enormous buildings that look like common household items?

In order to get permission to build a large building in central London, it's necessary to have a distinctive, unique design. The city does not want to look like America.

Hence, the Gherkin, Cheesegrater, Can of Ham, Walkie Talkie, Shard, Helter-skelter.

Another wonderful side effect of the vast concentration of capital! Who cares about the peons outside as long as the CEO gets to be in the tallest building?

Are there any times of day where the light coverges on a point in space above the street? Could a bird flying through this space catch fire?

The fun bit about this is that some may get the same effect at home from their windows. I know my SW facing windows will reflect little X shapes onto the back lawn and when you cross one they are noticeably hot. it is almost useful in winter

So what I am saying is that while some sky scrapers/etc can cause issues its the design/surface of all window surfaces that cause issues. it just is a matter of scale

Doesn't need to be a skyscraper. Similar focus problems with the Disney Hall in Los Angeles:


The "Grande Arche" in Paris has some glass protection wall to minimize channel winds. Still a very windy place.


Come on.

If you have to talk about the cliche skyscraper that cooks eggs everyone knows about, it's not really a story, it's more news, a one off (OK there was also one in Las Vegas)

The wind thing is interesting perhaps. Is that an actual engineering issue?

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | DMCA | Apply to YC | Contact