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Las Vegas Death Ray

by Geoff Manaugh ( last modified Jan 04, 2012 03:04 AM
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by Geoff Manaugh ( last modified Sep 29, 2010



By now, you've no doubt heard of the Las Vegas death ray: "The tall, sleek, curving Vdara Hotel at CityCenter on the Strip is a thing of beauty," the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports. "But the south-facing tower is also a collector and bouncer of sun rays, which—if you're at the hotel's swimming pool at the wrong time of day and season—can singe your hair and melt your plastic drink cups and shopping bags."

"Hotel pool employees call the phenomenon the 'Vdara death ray'," we read.

[Image: The "Vdara death ray"; illustration by Mike Johnson for the Las Vegas Review-Journal].

The surface of the building acts like a parabolic reflector, concentrating solar heat into a specific target area. It's the future of urban thermal warfare, perhaps: hotels armed against other hotels in a robust defense posture defined by pure heat.

Of course, Frank Gehry's Disney Concert Hall here in Los Angeles had its own "microclimatic impact," as this PDF makes clear. Back in 2004, USA Today explained that "the glare off the shimmering stainless steel curves at the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall is so bad, it's heating up nearby condos at least 15 degrees and forcing owners to crank up their air conditioners."

Oddly, though, this same heat-reflection effect came up recently in a course I'm currently teaching; a student and I were looking at a project by Sean Lally, Andrew Corrigan, and Paul Kweton of WEATHERS (previously documented on BLDGBLOG here).

That project proposed not really building anything at all but simply tapping the geothermal energy available beneath the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik to create "microclimates" around the city. "Heat is taken directly from the ground," they explain, "and piped up across the landscape into a system of [pipes and] towers."

[Image: By Sean Lally, Andrew Corrigan, and Paul Kweton of WEATHERS].

However, the question here would be: could you deliberately design an architecture without walls, using only thermal gradients—defining areas of public use and congregation solely based on heat? Could these and other parabolic reflections of solar energy be deliberately used as a tactic of architectural intervention and urban design? CTC™: Controlled Thermal Concentration.

Minneapolis-St. Paul, for instance, gets a series of strange pavilion-like stands topped with polished reflectors—and they're ugly as hell, and they make no sense at all except as bad public art, until you stand right next to them. All the snow around them has melted, you first notice, and you can actually stand there without a jacket on even in the depths of winter.

They are "buildings" without definable perimeter, shimmering with daily changes in heat—not a blur building, we might say, but a mirage. Which, I suppose, brings us back to Las Vegas...




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