“Sell the sizzle, not the steak”, the old hand tells the young salesman. In other words, people buy what they think a product does for them, not what it is. Sky Garden is a bar and restaurant complex on the top 3 floors of the Walkie-Talkie – 20 Fenchurch Street – a 38-storey office block in the City of London. The sizzle in this instance has to be the really stunning views from there across Britain’s capital.
20 Fenchurch Street was designed by New York based Uruguayan architect Rafael Viňoly. Nicknamed the Walkie-Talkie because of its distinctive retro-device shape, the footplate of each floor actually increases in size as you ascend the building. The commercial advantage of this clever design feature – more lettable floorspace than the ground level footprint would normally provide – is clear. 20 Fenchurch Street cost £200million to construct between January 2009 and May 2014 and in its short life has already collected more controversy than many common, or garden, heritage properties. As construction neared completion, it was discovered that the Walkie-Talkie’s concave shape concentrated the sun’s rays onto the street below, where car paintwork blistered, eggs were fried, bagels toasted and city workers went in fear of death rays. Then, strange wind noises (probably not what you’re thinking) were heard coming from the lift shafts. Next, it was found that the building has created a wind tunnel at street level, producing gusts of sufficient strength to blow trolleys, and potentially people, over. And then there’s the way it looks…it would surely be stretching credulity to describe 20 Fenchurch Street as beautiful. Rowan Moore, writing in the Guardian, pronounced it as “Thuggish, bloated and inelegant”. Don’t hold back, Rowan: though I have to admit he has a point; probably three, actually. In 2015, 20 Fenchurch deservedly won the Carbuncle Cup, a light-hearted architectural award for the UK’s ugliest building.
But let’s get back to 20 Fenchurch Street’s major USP, Sky Garden. Sky Garden comprises the Skypod Bar, City Garden Bar, Darwin Brasserie and Fenchurch Restaurant. It has been open since 2015 and was initially publicised as the UK’s tallest public park. The hyperbole has now been toned down to London’s highest public garden, the cerebrally celebrated marketing folk no doubt having been advised that: a) unless the space stretched up the building, rather than sitting on top of it, they didn’t really mean tall; b) some of Britain’s National Parks might sue them and; c) there were no swings, places for punting a ball around – and so on. However, it is still misleading to describe Sky Garden as public: the building is privately owned by the publicly listed companies Land Securities and Canary Wharf and, though Sky Garden is certainly open to the public, access is restricted.
That said, I was looking forward to a visit arranged by Daughter of Britain who, together with Mrs Britain, made sure I was correctly dressed and groomed for the occasion. Though entry to Sky Garden is free, it is not open 24/7, space is used for private functions and you need to book, online, up to three weeks in advance. Numbers are restricted too, for very good reasons, and the length of your stay is limited to one hour – unless, presumably, you are dining, in which case one would hope that you’re allowed to finish your starter before being asked to re-book for your main course. Be prepared to queue on arrival, where you must show your booking ticket and some ID, and then subject yourself to airport-style security. Frankly, in these troubled times of lunatic terrorists, I was grateful for the security and perfectly happy to load coats, bags, cuddly-toys and so on into trays and be body-scanned (though, unfortunately, this failed to identify the problem in my knee). But will someone tell me why security personnel are often so grim-faced and humourless? It is an international phenomenon and one of life’s great mysteries, like why sheep don’t shrink in the rain.
The large lifts whoosh to the 35th floor with ear-popping speed and you stumble into the arena of covered glass with the rest of the herd. The first sensation is one of space: it is as high as a cathedral, or an enormous barn (depending on your mood). And, even though there were plenty of people milling about, they did not obscure the sensational views, which drew me immediately, and irresistibly. The main bar area faces south, with an external walkway (sorry, open air terrace) and I could have spent ages just gazing at the vista of one of the world’s greatest cities some 500 feet below. Photography is restricted by a comfortingly high glass screen, but still the views are fascinating. Our visit had been timed to capture the late afternoon and evening – and that was a good decision. To the west was a miniscule St Paul’s, and the Thames curved gracefully away toward Westminster. To the east, downstream, the entire fortress of the Tower of London lay exposed and, beyond that, were the richly winking lights on the towers at Canary Wharf.
I’m not sure I’d describe the gardens as such; but luxuriant, terraced, planted areas flank the space on east and west, and stairs allow access to the north, where you can gaze adoringly at other office buildings – like the Gherkin and Nat West Tower. So we had a cocktail. This, of course, was part of the allure for my minders. And it was jolly nice, in a girly kind of, unsurprisingly over-priced, way. I had a pint of Old Rat’s Bottom later and it was perfect, but don’t tell, will you? We sat at a grey laminated plywood table on plastic chairs with curiously appropriate musak in the background, people-watched and enjoyed the atmosphere. Clearly, one toddler believed the propaganda about the place being a park. He insisted on making unpredictable dashes across the floor and borrowed a foam-rubber stool to playfully roll under people’s feet when they weren’t looking, whilst his parents, convinced that everyone else had come to the bar for the very purpose of loving their innocent child as much as they did, occasionally looked on indulgently, chatted to friends and ignored the near-fatalities and spilled drinks. Like all good games, it had to end. Eventually, a nice man in a heavy coat with curly wire growing out of his ear had a quiet word with mum, and junior was swiftly removed.
So, what’s the verdict on visiting Sky Garden? It is immensely popular, clearly a place to go and, if only to experience fabulous views of London, you should pay a visit. Did I enjoy Sky Garden? Absolutely; and I’d very happily go again – possibly having learned to take better photographs through glass. But I was a little disappointed. To be fair, I have enormous experience of visiting different buildings, was underwhelmed by the décor in this instance and have known headquarters and hotels with more imaginative planting. Criticisms aside, however, London has been a dynamic ever-changing city for two thousand years. It needs innovative architecture and, though it needs beauty too, it was a brave decision to create space like this – Sky Garden surely helps market the City of London and brings it closer to those that do not work there. Also, for all its outside space, heritage and expertise, London can learn from newer, arguably more adventurous, cities like Dubai and Singapore. I suggest, for what it’s worth, that London and other British cities will not compete so well if workspace is wholly sterile, divorced from the public and purely functional. In other words, we need more sizzle.