If you were looking north from the Sky Garden in Fenchurch Street this morning, I could see you. Mind you that probably applies if you were anywhere in central London at that time, because I was indulging in my first visit to Horizon 22, the highest free viewing gallery in Europe. Offering a remarkable panorama of London that outclasses any other, it sits almost at the top of 22 Bishopsgate, the second tallest building in the nation, and opened last month.
It has taken some time to get here. The infamously extended construction period for 22 Bishopsgate, designed by PLP Architecture, included partial erection of a very different design which originated in 2005, a lengthy hiatus whilst economic options were reassessed after the 2008 Crash and then demolition of that structure, all before the current building was begun after approval was obtained in 2017 (I saw the model, and spoke to one of the architects, two years before). Though fully completed in 2020 the viewing gallery remained closed whilst economic and other factors were weighed, despite its opening being a condition of planning.
Physical alterations to the proposed public entrance were made during this period, whilst planning documents indicate the tenor of discussions between the City Corporation and the owners over how the amenity is to be used. Changes to the necessary management plan included the former clarifying to the latter that “the capacity of 280 is not a cap but a minimum members of the public [sic] to be admitted at any one time”, that “10% of maximum capacity [is] to be held in reserve and made available to walk-ups” and – perhaps the most striking – removal of a suggestion that “guest[s] convicted of a criminal offence may be refused entry.” This last is especially notable, indeed ironic, given similar arguments forty years ago around public access to the previous building on this site, Fitzroy Robinson & Partners’ Standard Chartered bank. As I describe elsewhere, back then the issues included whether and how its atrium’s opening hours should be advertised to the public, the implied right that people to take photographs(!) and even the width of floor that pedestrians could walk on.
Happily this behind-the-scenes tension between public access and private space is eased by the experience of actually visiting Horizon 22. The entrance is not shoved apologetically around the back but sits on Bishopsgate itself, albeit as part of the building’s rather confused and unpolished street elevation; the signage, oddly, seemed to indicate The Lookout, the observation gallery of 8 Bishopsgate next door. Nevertheless a big QR code behind the glass worked instantly to grant me an e-ticket for more or less immediate entry to Horizon 22 this morning – I only had to amuse myself for an hour beforehand.
Just before the appointed slot, the first of many genuinely friendly staffers scanned my phone and directed me up a short escalator (there is also a lift, helpful for the several wheelchair and pushchair users I saw) to the security screening – the usual X-ray conveyor and arch affair, though with no need to show any ID. Two double-fronted lifts then beckoned, though I had one – capacity 30 people! – to myself. Yes, my ears did pop as it took me up to the 59th floor (they prefer to call it 58M) in about 45 seconds, the doors opening onto a small mezzanine that gives a pretty stunning introduction to the double-height viewing gallery that is technically on floor 58. After walking down stairs to that primary level, my pictures pretty much tell the story.
What struck me the most was the astonishing height, breadth and depth of the view, principally to the north west of London – my home. Of course you can see the obvious built features visible from most of the capital’s tall landmarks – the BT Tower, the Wembley Arch – but by eye quickly hit on the squat orange mass of Alexander Palace in Muswell Hill, itself nestling at the foot of the great green swath that is the Northern Heights. Further west, thanks to the wonderful sinuosity of the Thames, Vauxhall, Battersea and even Croydon loom large; past Canary Wharf, and by standing at the far east end of the space, you can see planes land or take off at London City Airport. These are by no means the furthest one can see from Horizon 22, which is not that much lower than a pleasure flight in a helicopter. As a result I’d have needed an A-Z and Google to workout just how far away the, er, horizon was on a clear morning like this one.
Closer to, there’s plenty to see. Peer behind the walls and inside the courtyards of the Bank of England, or note the green rectangle of Bunhill Fields hemmed in by urban density. Tower 42, for a full decade the tallest building in the entire country (and still one of the most elegant), now seems like a groundscraper, its rooftop cooling fans gaping at you a full 300 feet below. The new blue cranes on the Lloyd’s Building look like toys, whilst the twin building maintenance units snuggled into the roof of the Meccano-like Leadenhall Building opposite – also by Richard Rogers – will please the grown-up engineers amongst you. And anyone can indulge their inner child by watching buses and cars crawl along the streets or across bridges or tiny trains thread their way into and out of stations like worms.
The huge floor-to-ceiling windows eliminate all squinting and cupping of hands, so bright and clear are they, with only the occasional structural member to get in the way of a quick snap. The shiny floor and the triple glazing do, though, cause some reflections. There are loos, a small refreshment stand (crisps, snacks and coffee) and another set of stairs up to another mezzanine (they, and the escalators, are the result of the building using double-deck lifts), from where you are ushered gently into the same lifts you used on the way up but via the opposite set of doors, just like the tube stations that sit below ground. One exits – brought down to earth, one might say – to the side of the building.
Horizon 22 is the first stage of the planned high level public amenity; as with other such buildings, like 120 Fenchurch Street, the ‘food and beverage offer’ arrives later – Gordon Ramsay‘s Lucky Cat and Bread Street Kitchen are to occupy floors 58 to 61 of 22 Bishopsgate, according to an online trade news item last week.
Until then, say hi to London from its highest point. You won’t be disappointed.