20 Fenchurch Street — known by Londoners, not so affectionately, as the ‘Walkie-Talkie’ — has ruffled more than a few feathers during its ungainly rise from the north bank of the Thames River. Its thuggish, lumbering form has been met with a tidal wave of derision from the U.K’s leading architecture critics, not to mention the general public: as one commenter on The Guardian newspaper’s recent review so eloquently put it, the gargantuan skyscraper’s inelegant proportions are “about as subtle as a fridge.”
Touted as “the building with more up top,” the Walkie-Talkie’s bulging form is a physical manifestation of Carol Willis’s contemporary architectural proverb, “form follows finance." The ever-increasing floor plates of the upper stories were designed by Rafael Viñoly to maximize profits for the building’s developers, Canary Wharf Group and Land Securities. The resulting silhouette is muscular, bordering on brutish, and gatecrashes a key view of London’s Tower Bridge like the world’s most obnoxious photo bomber.
All of this, on top of the well-documented death-ray sunbeams reflecting off the building’s concave glazing, has led to substantial skepticism over the building’s architectural merit.
However, all would be forgiven, we were told, when the building’s crowning glory was unveiled: the “sky garden,” enthusiastically billed as “the U.K’s tallest public park”, opened last week.
The problem is that key words within those highly marketable phrases seem spurious in the extreme. First, to call it a “garden” requires an almighty stretch of the imagination: The space, encased in curving arcs of glass and steel, is dominated by polished gray surfaces, allowing ample space for bankers to schmooze with cocktails named the “Rhubarb Viñoly” and the “Bitter Truth.” The result is a space that looks more like a plush hotel lobby than the luscious park that was promised when the bloated building was squeezed through the hoops of the planning process.
Furthermore, the words “public park” should have a very large and spiky asterisk chained to them. Sure, the general public is allowed free access to certain areas at the building’s summit... but there are caveats aplenty. First, you must book three days in advance, and if you are running more than 10 minutes late, you can expect to miss your slot. Secondly, don’t plan on spending the afternoon relaxing with a book or studying on your laptop as you might in Hyde Park: The maximum stay for each “appointment” is 1.5 hours.
Thirdly, you had better not think of bringing a picnic to this particular park, certainly not with a bottle of wine, or even a soda for that matter: The security system will not permit you to bring in any liquids greater than 100ml, and no bags larger than 8"x17"x19". It’s lucky that the sky garden looks so much like an airport departure lounge, because the whole experience should be reminiscent of making your way through Terminal 5 at Heathrow.
I could go on – the sky garden comes with its very own book of rule and regulations, amounting to asuccinct 3,700 words. I’ll let you read them at your leisure.
Once you’re up there though, the view must make up for it all, surely? Not so much, as The Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright sums up:
“Wherever you are in the sky garden, the views feel frustratingly distant. The city is separated from your gaze by a buffer of external parapets to the north and a smokers’ terrace to the south; nowhere can you put your face to the glass and look right down. The whole of London spreads out below, but you’ll have to crane your neck to see it.”
Richard Reynolds, The writer of “The Guerrilla Gardener” blog on urban cultivation, was also less than impressed, commenting: “Frankly this garden is yet another scandal. It’s not what we were promised is it?”
These issues are all tied back to the biggest bane of architects’ lives, particularly when it comes to combining public space with corporate structures: compromise. In order to make this large public space financially viable for the developers, large and increasingly exclusive catering “concepts” were incorporated, swallowing up areas where the “green” of the garden may have been. The restricted entry hours and numerous security hurdles are a sign of our paranoid times, and they are understandable given the location of the space.
Unfortunately, the sky garden is not the idyllic oasis that was promised once the dust had settled following the negotiations in the City of London’s planning department. While Norman Foster’s Gherkinis unapologetic in its exclusivity, the Walkie-Talkie attempts to be all things to all people — and, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes up woefully short in all areas as a result.
The only hope now is that when clients, councils, and architects are planning the next high-rise in the heart of the city, they learn lessons from this inflated slab of steel and glass — and the sky-high scandal at its summit.
The Angry Architect
All images via Architizer