Major Architectural Failures

walkie talkie london

It is often understandable that people make mistakes, even on the job – nobody is perfect, after all. However, some jobs tend to be more forgiving than others. Let’s have a look at some of the major architectural oversights that caused serious repercussions. In this article, we learn about two buildings that redirected intense sunlight due to architectural flaws. 

Vdara Condo-hotel

This Las Vegas luxury building was specially designed in a concave shape, featuring sky high walls and a full glass exterior. However, the unique architecture led to concentrated beams of solar rays being reflected onto an area of the pool, which led to several guests getting severe sunburns. 

This beam, dubbed the “death ray”, occurs when sunlight hits the walls of the 57-story building at a certain angle. Since Vdara is covered in windows, the building was essentially a large glass that redirected the intense sunlight to a portion of the pool. This hot section moves together with the sun as the day goes by, increasing the temperature of the affected pool area by approximately 20 degrees. According to one guest, the pool area reached temperatures of up to 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit. 

When the Vdara was first built, the owner of the condo-hotel, MGM Resorts, attempted to correct this architectural flaw by installing high tech solar films enough to cover some three thousand glass panes that make up the south of Vdara. However, it was not enough to alleviate the strong solar rays, which continued to trouble the owners and guests of Vdara. 

The staff could not just cordon off the affected areas, either – the “hot spots” would always be in different places, changing by the day or the week as the sun constantly changes its elevation in relation to Earth. As a result, guests had to put up with the death ray moving across the pool deck for 90 minutes each day. 

One Vdara condo owner and Chicago attorney, Bill Pintas, complained that he almost lost some hair from a close encounter with the death ray. He went for a swim in the pool just after noon, but soon felt his head burning. Thinking it was due to chemicals in the pool, he got out of the pool and sat in a chair, only to find that his back was still burning. Pintas ran under an umbrella, but it provided no shade from the light or heat. He reported that the intense rays had burned a plastic bag he had with him and nearly singed his hair. 

MGM Resorts took to further measures to prevent the death rays from being as harmful, such as adding more umbrellas, additional foliage and structures for shade. The exterior of the building has been covered by non-reflective film to minimize the effects of the sun. 

However, the situation was not entirely dire at Vdara. The sun might have burned on hot days, but during the cooler seasons, some people enjoyed the higher temperatures at the hot spots, even deliberately placing their blankets there for the extra heat. 

Walkie Talkie in London

It is no coincidence that London also has a “death ray” skyscraper similar to the condo-hotel in Las Vegas. Designed by the same architect, the building 20 Fenchurch Street, a 38-story skyscraper on Fenchurch Street in central London, was dubbed “Walkie Talkie” due to its distinct shape, and also “Walkie Scorchie” and “Fryscraper” after people realized that the glass building reflected intense glare from the sun. 

The Walkie Talkie has been known for melting bicycle seats, pavements, doormats and even cars. One café outside the skyscraper even managed to toast a baguette and fry an egg in the glare of the building. 

To alleviate this problem, the building was fitted with a sunshade in 2014 in the hopes that that would solve all its problems. However, solar rays were not the entirety of the architectural flaw. It was discovered that there were strong gusts of wind at the bottom of the building, so powerful in fact that they would even blow people over and topple signs off buildings. The shops around the area had to keep their doors closed due to the strong wind. 

Unfortunately, it was found that the strong gusts of wind could also be attributed to the skyscraper’s presence. This phenomenon, called the down-draught effect, occurs when wind hits a tall building and gets pushed up, down and around its sides. The air that was pushed downwards results in a wind tunnel at the base of the building, causing fast and strong wind on the streets below. 

Rafael Viñoly, the architect of the Walkie Talkie and also Vdara, admitted that he did not realize that the sun rays reflected off the London skyscraper would be that hot. The Walkie Talkie was originally supposed to have horizontal sun louvres to redirect some of the sun, but these were removed during the cost-cutting procedure. 

Viñoly said that he “made a lot of mistakes with this building”. He stated that he knew this was going to happen, but that there was a lack of tools or software that could enable the team to analyze the problem and find a solution. Although the issue with the heat was spotted on the second design iteration, it was estimated to be only about 36 degrees (Celsius), but when the building was finally built, the heat turned out to be twice the expected amount. 

The issue was temporarily solved by placing a two-story scaffolding structure covered in netting to help absorb the solar rays reflected from the Walkie Talkie. Three parking spaces under the most intense heat were suspended, with the developers of the building, Land Securities and Canary Wharf group, saying that they would look at longer term solutions. 

Environmental Effects

Although we could easily say that these buildings were flawed due to errors in their designs, the building developers have argued that this could be just as easily blamed on global warming and the shifting of the elevation of the sun. 

Outside of unintentionally scorching occupants and passers-by, some environmentalists have been interested in these designs as a useful source of power. Similar magnifying effects are actually used in Spain and parts of the United States, where power plants are equipped with parabolic mirrors to focus solar rays on a central point. The heat received by this point is then stored and converted to power. 

Viñoly had designed one such building for a site in China, designed to direct sunlight to a central receptor, but it still remains unbuilt. 


In 2015, the Walkie Talkie was awarded the Carbuncle Cup, a satirical prize, for being the “ugliest building in the United Kingdom”. Its sun-scorching ability and strong winds were criticized, as well as its bulging shape out towards the top, instead of leaning inwards or having parallel sides like most tall buildings do. 

Tacoma Narrows Bridge

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was opened to the public on July 1, 1940. It was the third longest suspension bridge in the world, with a main span of 2,800 ft (850 m). Just four months after its construction, on November 7, 1940, the bridge would collapse into the Tacoma Narrows below. 

A bridge across the Tacoma Narrows had long been proposed some decades before actual efforts began in the 1920s to construct it. The Washington State legislature allocated $5,000 ($84,000 today) towards studying the request for a bridge. However, one major concern was that the financing would be insufficient to construct the bridge. New York bridge engineer Leon Solomon Moisseiff looked into cutting costs by stiffening the bridge with eight-foot-deep plate girders instead of the original 25-foot-deep trusses. This design meant that the bridge would be slimmer, more elegant, and most importantly less expensive to construct. Bridge construction began in September 1938 and lasted for 19 months, costing $6.4 million ($116.2 million today) in total. 

The bridge was 39 ft (12 m) wide and had only two lanes since it was not expected to see a lot of traffic. Compared to its length, its width was rather narrow and the roadway section was very shallow. The bulk of the problem was caused by the shallow and narrow girders used, causing the deck of the bridge to be rigid and not allow wind to pass through it. From the moment it was built, the bridge would catch the wind and sway vertically. Even in mild winds, parts of the center span would rise and fall several feet over intervals, earning the bridge the nickname “Galloping Gertie”. 

The structural vibration did not go unnoticed during its construction. Several measures were taken to attempt to control the bridge’s vertical motion. For one, tie-down cables were attached to the plate girders, which were anchored to 50-ton concrete blocks on the shore. However, the cables did not hold out long and snapped shortly after installation. Secondly, a pair of inclined cable stays were added, serving to connect the main cables to the bridge deck. While these were able to remain in place, they did little to reduce the vertical oscillations. The final effort was to place hydraulic buffers between the towers and the floor system of the deck, with the intention to reduce the vertical motion of the main span. Unfortunately, these hydraulic buffers were rendered ineffective when the bridge was sand-blasted as part of the construction process, damaging the seals of the buffer units. 

Professor Frederick Burt Farquharson of the University of Washington was hired to study the bridge in wind-tunnel tests and make recommendations to reduce the bridge’s vertical motion. He proposed that holes be drilled in the lateral girders and along the deck to allow air to flow through the bridge and reduce the lift forces acting on it. Another recommendation was to add fairings or deflector vanes to the transverse section of the deck, giving it a more aerodynamic shape. Unfortunately, these recommendations were never carried out as the bridge collapsed just five days later. 

At 11 AM on November 7, 1940, the bridge was under winds at the speed of 40 mi/h (64 km/h). It started to sway in a twisting motion, where the underside of the bridge would roll upwards, similar to a corkscrew. The bridge finally gave way due to aeroelastic flutter, with the main span collapsing into the Narrows. No human lives were lost in the collapse, with the only casualty being a cocker spaniel called Tubby, the dog of Leonard Coatsworth’s daughter. Coatsworth, an editor for the Tacoma News Tribune, was the last person to drive on the bridge and recounted how he barely made it to safety. He received $450 ($8,200 today) as compensation for his car and $364.40 ($6,700 today) for the contents of his car, including Tubby. 

Barney Elliott, a photographer, recorded the collapse of the bridge on 16 mm film. The film is still in circulation today, but some copies show the bridge swaying approximately 50% faster than it actually did, due to the film being converted to 24 frames per second when it was actually being shot at 16.  

The tower pedestals and cable anchorages of the bridge, which survived the collapse, are still being used for the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge which opened in 1950. The collapsed portion is still in the water and has become an artificial reef. 

CNA Center

Also dubbed the “Big Red”, the CNA Center is not something one would miss due to its unique red paint. Designed by the firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, the building was completed in 1972. 

Since the 45-story building’s construction, it has experienced problems with cracking glass due to an inability to withstand thermal stress, caused by a warm portion of glass expanding against a cooler area and resulting in cracking. 

In 1999, part of a window on the 29th floor broke off and fell to the ground, causing the death of 37-year-old Ana Bertha Flores. Flores was walking with her three-year-old daughter Viridiana when the window fell on her while she was still holding her daughter’s hand. Ana Flores’ family was paid $18 million in a lawsuit as reimbursement for her loss. She left behind a husband and two daughters aged fourteen and three at the time of her death. 

This was not the first time a window had broken off from the building and caused harm to pedestrians below. In 1994, another pedestrian was injured by falling glass at the building, following which an investigation was performed, identifying thermal stress as the cause of the cracking. The cost of replacing all the windows was estimated to be around $3.5 million, but none of them were replaced. Recommendations were made for the building’s glass to be reinforced with an anchored-film restraint system, which would help to hold the pieces of glass in place until they could be replaced. However, this advice was not heeded and at least 40 windows cracked in the years between 1994 to 1999. The window that killed Ana Flores had been left cracked for four months. 

It took a tragedy to spur people on to action. After Flores was killed, the six subsequent windows that cracked were immediately replaced. CNA spent more than a million dollars on enforcing extra safety measures, such as building protective canopies over the surrounding sidewalks to prevent any more glass from falling onto pedestrians. The previously proposed anchored-film restraint system was also installed until the windows could be replaced. There were other repercussions, such as multiple lawsuits against CNA, one from the City of Chicago for repairs to the building and fines for code violations, while Flores’ family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against both CNA and the company managing operations at the Big Red, Cushman & Wakefield. 

For the long run, CNA looked at replacing the windows with a new type of heat-strengthened glass. This glass would be more resistant against thermal stress and contain a built-in safety film as an extra precaution, preventing any broken glass from falling out.