20 Fenchurch Street Tower or Walkie Talkie as it is usually referred as is not far from where I live. I watched it go up slowly for years and I never particularly liked it. To be more accurate I actually always disliked it. Every time I cycle west down Whitechapel Road it dominates the skyline totally filling up the horizon.
As it was being built I realised that it was flaring up the taller it became. For a little while I appreciated its geometry and was rather intrigued by the potentially interesting engineering calculations it required. However when I came across the drawing of the original idea and saw how much taller it was supposed to be it occurred to me that there was something wrong with its proportions. Proportions determine a building’s scale hence are extremely important.
Therefore if a building is ultimately constructed shorter and wider than its original design, it shows. And this is just one of the conclusions that one comes to by examining Walkie Talkie superficially, as a sculptural object. Something which I always find secondary in critiquing a high-rise.
Researching a bit the building’s Skygarden I discovered that it was not part of the original concept. The tower which is not situated in the part of the City where all the other high-rises are, was at first denied planning permission. The case was eventually reviewed and permission was granted because the architect pledged to give the top floor to the public. A smart and cheeky move. I am usually put off by investors’ justifications. Especially when they advertise their generosity which is often a calculated move in order to get their way.
Another interesting fact about Walkie Talkie is that the true reason for the building getting larger in plan towards the top, had nothing to do with creativity and architectural inspiration. It was mainly a smart idea in order to increase the rentable floor space of the upper floors where it is considerably more expensive. The skygarden was the idea that helped the project go through but profit was again in the heart of that decision. A large part of the top floor’s space is occupied by private restaurants.
The garden is divided in half by the bulky volume of the restaurants and is reduced to two sloping areas where the plants are placed. The sitting areas are basically a couple of small seats in the middle of these slopes. In case they are found empty, they are impossible to enjoy as they are constantly coveted by the hundreds of visitors.
Places like this, especially when there is a deadline in the time that one is allowed to stay there, make relaxing there extremely difficult. Ultimately this is a space to be consumed. It exists to go see and maybe take a selfie at, in order to be able to say, “been there done that”.
Of course there is the view, which is undeniable. Any 360 view from a high building is always fascinating. Even from this particular building which most people find rather ugly. The proportions are wrong the detailing is wrong, it feels clumsy and crude and somehow pretentious.
And to top all that, it melted a couple of cars and set the carpet of a shop across the street on fire with the beam of sunlight that was reflected off it before its brise-soleil panels were installed. Later on its architect Rafael Viñoly stated that he remembered London less sunny which to say the least seems like a ridiculous excuse for the poorly thought out implications of the building’s geometry.
The experience of visiting Skygarden did not leave an indelible impression in my memory. Yes it was free which was good but one has to book in advance, bring a photo ID and go through the airport-like security of x-rays and metal detectors. The hostesses in fake fur that check the IDs and give information look like airline hostesses giving a sexualised 60’s air to the experience that made me rather uncomfortable.
Once upstairs I did not go immediately to the terrace as most people do. Instead I felt the need to check out first the “garden” which in fact is not visible when you first step out of the elevator. Going up the steps towards the higher level of the “garden” I had what I call “a Planet of the Apes moment”.
Seeing the Gherkin and the Cheesegrater towers through the plants, reminded me of the classic science fiction film when the protagonists realise that the end of civilisation has occurred as soon as they see the remains of the statue of Liberty. The top of the towers through the plants was a similarly compelling image.
After that I went further up at the restaurant’s terrace which is shockingly bare. What garden? That was the desert. So sad, empty and disorientating, as far away from the concept of the garden as possible. The whole experience seemed more of a hoax. Eventually I went outside to the terrace where I enjoyed my 15 minutes of false superiority that any visit to a skyscraper ultimately is all about.
Once again I got to think about how twisted the whole concept of public space is getting to be. This place is as public as any London square owned by a private company that you can quietly stay in if you obey a set of rules of behaviour. No skating, no smoking, no protesting, no rough sleeping and who knows what else. Public space seems to be turning into a plane of restrictions which slowly but surely squeezes the freedom out of our lives. This is not as science-fiction-like as it seemed during my Planet of the Apes moment. Slowly but surely the only thing allowed in these so-called-public places will be to marvel at capitalism’s overwhelming superiority, solidified in scary tall buildings that the masses will be able to admire from a distance.