Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

20 Fenchurch Street

It’s been ten months since Rafael Viñoly’s new 20 Fenchurch Street, nicknamed the Walkie Talkie by the media from the successively larger floorplates as the building rises, opened for business. It had already attracted opprobrium thanks to this unprecedented design profile and its location outside the permitted ‘cluster’ of very tall towers in the City of London, downdrafts around at its foot and the concave southern façade’s ability – apparently unappreciated at the design stage – to focus solar rays to destructive level. Condemnation then came for the supposed failings of its equally innovative ‘Sky Garden’, a triple-level space at the very top of the building given over to public use: it was hard to get into, badly designed and wasn’t in fact much of a garden at all.

This and other factors have delayed my own examination of these claims although a growing appreciation for the building’s lines, with elegant white ‘fins’ running gracefully up its sides and over the top to form (visually at least – in reality there is an invisible material transition from aluminium cladding to structural steel) the members of that controversial roof space must be admitted.

At street level after an admittedly windblown approach – although on a breezy October mid-day it’s difficult to ascribe this specifically to the building itself – the effectiveness of Viñoly’s approach to the external appearance of 20 Fenchurch Street’s is in fact self-evident. The subtle curves on every façade combine to moderate the verticality of the fins into a moiré-like pattern of hypnotic power as they soar into the sky, converge and ultimately curve gently over to the south, like plants drawn to the sun. The comparison seems especially apt given the vast (52,000 plants over 700m2 – Britain’s largest) green wall on the adjacent five-storey retail and service annex, a pavilion-style block that shares the same slightly elevated base as the tower and stands to its south.

Visitors to the Sky Garden are accommodated in a dedicated reception space in cool white veined marble on this side of the main building, cleverly using dedicated express lifts installed in two shafts at the end of one of the usual elevator banks. The number of those keen to visit was notable on this sunny day, and simple numbers are thus responsible for by far the better part of the ten minutes it took to reach the 35th floor rather than compliance with the much-commented but in truth utterly unremarkable security requirements.

Press images taken at the Sky Garden have been unexceptional and, accompanying those dismissive reviews as they did, had ensured no ‘spoilers’. It was therefore a stunning surprise to see just how large and open even this first portion of the space is, stretching several metres to the south and the full width of this, the broadest level of the building. Sunlight floods the Garden from all sides, not only through the great glass façade straight ahead that frames the first of many views but especially through the fully-glazed roof, striped by those narrow steel beams, three floors above one’s head. The area was already buzzing with visitors of all kinds – children, babies, seniors, Londoners, tourists – sipping drinks or snacking, seated at tables or on stools around the island bar, the pink throws provided at the former adding a subtly consistent colour note amidst the reds, yellows and blues of people’s clothing. The relaxed, democratic atmosphere was immediately reminiscent of the revived Royal Festival Hall, an important observation that soon gave lie to the suggestion that the venue – which is of course free of charge – presents barriers to entry.

Almost filling one’s field of vision is of course a widescreen vision of the Surrey side of the Thames, the obelisk of the Shard a firm waypoint directly in the centre (oddly my admiration for 20 Fenchurch Street seems to have developed in inverse proportion to my regard for the Shard, whose heroic construction gripped but which, with that fractured tip that appears always to be awaiting its final panels, now leaves me fundamentally unmoved). Two sets of revolving doors lead out from here to an open-air viewing platform that also spans the full width of the floor. Also much deeper than one might suppose, giving plenty of space for circulation, it is protected completely – and delightully unexpectedly – from any buffeting by a head-height glass partition that tilts away from you, and has a nice stainless steel handrail to provide firm support. With the curved eaves of the steels far above, the terrace gives even greater proximity to what is out there with no ill effects, physical or psychological. That it projects sufficiently for small side galleries, giving views east and west, is also important.

Returning inside, one now appreciates the two wide strips of rich green planting that flank the tiered restaurants in the centre of the space, as well as the stone steps that run between these and the exterior walls and which lead one up and back through the full height of the space. From them the entire City can be seen to the left, complemented by Dockland down to Canary Wharf to the right. The planted areas are packed with greenery, and little groves off the landings, floored with paviours and with amusing retro ‘tree stump’ seating, can be used to admire them more closely without interrupting those using the steps. A separate stair leads from one of these up to the top-level restaurant, which has its own large terrace on the roof of the lower venue – this is the highest publicly-accessible point of the Sky Garden, and gives a genuine if slight sense of vertigo when looking down at the entry level ten metres below.

A leisurely walk up either of the two flights of steps eventually leads to the northern viewing area, behind the ‘stack’ of restaurants (and toilets, another thoughtful provision). Also large, its sheer glass wall, less dramatically shaped than that to the south, attractive built-in wooden bench following its entire lengths and the presence of three trees in drum-shaped stainless steel planters lend it a rather different character than that of its cousin three floors lower, the lack of an external platform perhaps also accounting for its quieter mood. And yet in many ways this is the pièce de résistance of the entire scheme, thanks to not one but two astonishing co-incidents of location that generate some of the most arresting visual conjunctions to be had anywhere in the capital.

In front, the upper halves of three of the City’s most distinctive tall buildings – Tower 42, 122 Leadenhall Street and 30 St Mary Axe – stand in perfect isolation and equidistantly aligned, reduced to platonic volumes – prism, wedge, cone – as carefully placed as items on a mantelpiece. It is a unique product of elevation and lateral position that is visible only from one point in the Sky Garden and enhanced by what Viñoly’s practice refer to as the “large urban window” they have created here. Glances to the sides, meanwhile, reveal that the same point lies on a monumental meridian with the BT Tower to the west and One Canada Square to the east, both framed in the same respective panels.

This three dimensionality, brought about by the sheer size of the space and the manner in which public access has been threaded through it, is key to the success of the Sky Garden. Far more than a simple, flat-floored observation deck, the varying heights, outlooks and angles make for a deft scenography to which the multiple layers of glass and structure, both curving in many directions, contribute hugely. Indeed far from interrupting the view, as some have alleged, the delicate framework and its bright white colour slice it up delightfully in a kind of architectural decoupage.

In this respect, too, the Sky Garden is in remarkable sympathy with the sinuous path of the Thames itself. The meandering path of London’s river ensures every new high-level vantage point brings a genuinely new and fresh view, in which familiar landmarks have somehow changed position relative to each other with wonderful puckishness. This is in grim contrast to the Cartesian cities of the world, most obviously New York, where view sampling from its relentless grid of skyscrapers merely yields slight variations of the same – the Law of Diminishing Perspective, perhaps.

Of course it is possible to level criticisms. The northern terrace is clearly optimised for private functions, and the architectural form of the restaurants is somewhat slabby and unsubtle. Quite why these have to be completely glazed, with not even an openable window apparent, is not obvious, and ironically patrons probably have the worst view anywhere in the Garden. Whether the extent and nature (no pun intended) of the landscaping matches that approved is something that planners are currently considering. And yes, you have to book ahead even to visit the terraces.

But this is being churlish, finding criticisms for the sake of criticisms. The building, and more particularly this extraordinary place at the top of it, is superb. At both the macro and micro scales, the amount of space is hugely generous and very attractive. The detail, always a telling feature of any designer’s skill and commitment, is good, with a decent level of craft extending from the bolted structural connections to the stonework. The booking system is hardly more complex than that at any venue; the staff are friendly and efficient. And there are the views – oh, those views… Whether around you, above you, with planes seeming to skim the roof as they drift in to London City Airport, or below you, they are stupendous and comprehensive, and will change your conceptions of your city.

Rafael Viñoly has gifted us with something special. The Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Street simply is London’s new social space. Go.

Posted 2 October 2015

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