When transparency isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
A message so clear you can see straight through it
Architect Thomas Heatherwick, known locally for his conceptual design of the Zeitz-Mocca gallery in Cape Town, has just completed a multibillion-dollar project, the Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.
The design was tethered on three pillars: functionality, practicality and technology. It is a modern architectural skyscraper and Heatherwick wanted to produce something that not only seemed neighbourly and monumental but also reflective of Google’s self-proclaimed philosophy: transparency.With that in mind, every piece of glass in the complex is a bespoke commission treated to achieve a precise clarity, the unexpected result of which is that people continuously walk into the walls and windows, unable to differentiate between the glass panels and the open doors. So far, at least three people have required emergency medical treatment.
Part of the design included perfectly flat thresholds so that engineers in transit would not have to change their stride and risk breaking their concentration. In practice, distracted workers on iPhones have been bouncing off and bounding into the glass walls. The solution so far is a flotsam of yellow sticky notes attached to the glass walls to help alert staff to the presence of the extra-hard clear, curved glass. But the notes are routinely removed because they’re seen as being a blight on the clean aesthetics of the design.
So which other architectural feats are, in practical terms, actually failures?Historic examples of architecture failure include the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which began to lean even before its completion. The opulent Palace of Versailles is famously flawed: it was built entirely without toilets. Waste was disposed of by throwing it out of windows, often resulting in a putrid drenching of those walking outside. Toilets were only added 150 years after the palace was built.In modern times this is not the first time massive architectural projects have gone awry in the dialogue between design and practicality. The iconic Sydney Opera in Australia has the worst acoustic sound of any of the world’s major opera venues due to a mid-project reorganisation of the spaces. The opera hall is too small to comfortably hold an opera performance and the concert hall too large, meaning not everyone can hear the performance clearly.
The Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas is nicknamed the “deathray hotel”. The curved hotel’s façade is entirely made of glass and as the sun rises the light is refracted towards the pool area, raising the temperature by 10 degrees.People have complained of injuries and malaise ranging from seared skin, melted umbrellas and pavements too hot to walk on, to damaged eyesight.And a few years ago who could forget the building dubbed the “walkie-talkie” in London that burnt up a Jaguar on the road below it. Martin Lindsay parked his Jag for an hour and it was melted by the sun reflecting off the building.
Shopkeepers in the area complained of burnt carpets, blistered paintwork and smouldering doors. The building was designed by internationally renowned Rafael Viñoly, the same architect who designed the Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas.A permanent sunshade of horizontal aluminum fins was built to absorb and diffuse sunlight. It covers much of the building's southern face, blocking the view of the Thames for many of the tower’s occupants.