Back in September 2010, a lawyer from Chicago named Bill Pintas was lying poolside at the Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas. It was just after noon. He was lying on his stomach when he started to feel painfully hot. When he went to put his flip flops on, they were half-melted, so he ran barefoot into the shade. Once there, he smelled something burning, and realized his hair had been singed. When Pintas returned to his chair, a plastic shopping bag he’d left there was melted, and when he asked hotel staff about it, they were apologetic but unsurprised. A waitress told him that plastic drink cups that were left out by the pool were often melted, and she even had a name for the phenomenon; “The Vdara Death Ray.”
The “death ray” effect was created by the curved, reflective facade of the south-facing hotel gathering and focusing the midday sun into a laser-like ray. The effect is enhanced by the fact that the windows are covered with a reflective film that keeps the inside of the hotel cooler, but throws back much more light than a regular window. Some of the hotel employees have recently taken to call the effect a “glare” – possibly, some have speculated, for liability reasons – but it’s much more intense than that, as Bill Pintas’s burned hair can confirm. In fact, the principle at work in the Vdara hotel facade has been used to create a European solar furnace that reaches temperatures capable of vaporizing pretty much any substance on earth.
In the South of France, the Odeillo solar furnace uses 9,600 mirrors to reflect and re-reflect the rays of the sun into a beam that can reach well over 7000 degrees in just a few seconds. Scientists there use it to conduct experiments, all of which involve melting stuff like giddy 12 year olds with a magnifying glass and an anthill. (Okay, they also run tests on stuff like materials for space shuttle re-entry.) If you think it’s weird that an architect accidentally built a hotel that almost perfectly reproduces an intentionally-designed literal death ray, consider that the architect in question did it not once, but twice.
In London’s Financial District, the same man who built the Vdara hotel – an architect named Rafael Vinoly – designed a distinctive, concave building with a mirrored exterior. Guess what happened next? A man parked his Jaguar outside the building one sunny afternoon, and returned to find it half-melted to slag. When the story spread, the media dubbed Vinoly’s building “The Fryscraper,” and other stories of its solar death ray emerged; the carpeting in a nearby barber shop burst into flame after the building’s reflection fell onto it, and a restaurant’s tile floors shattered from the intense heat. A cafe even used the death ray to fry an egg. So what’s Vinoly’s deal?
In an interview with The Guardian, Vinoly began by admitting fault. “We made a lot of mistakes with the building,” he said. But, like a certain president’s offspring, he couldn’t leave well enough alone, and continued to talk himself into a corner. “I knew this was going to happen,” he said. (Really? If you knew your buildings were going to produce literal death rays, why did you design them like that?) Vinoly then claimed that there weren’t any tools or software that could’ve predicted the death rays, which experts have said is patently false. When the Guardian brought up the Vegas tower, Vinoly said it was “a totally different problem.” (Hmmm.) He then thoroughly confused things by revealing that he’d designed a solar furnace for a Chinese company, a curved glass building that would intentionally focus sunlight to create electricity. (Wait, so did he use the same plans for all three buildings?!)
To cap off the bizarre and possibly incriminating interview, Vinoly then blamed the death rays on climate change, of all things. “When I first came to London years ago, it wasn’t like this,” he said. “Now you have all these sunny days. So you should blame this thing on global warming too, right?”
Is Vinoly some kind of sinister architectural James Bond villain, an intellectually lazy recycler of ideas, or just a bumbling accidental arsonist? It sounds like the right answer might be “all of the above.”