Last Updated on 10th November 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
“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.
It looks like a fascinating place to visit, I had not heard of it before.
What a place to visit, those views are amazing …
All the best Jan
What a wonderful writer you are, your wry observations make me smile. I loved hearing that your minders had you dressed properly, etc. It’s amazing they let you out, eh. Awesome stuff, Mike.
Thanks, Sim – really appreciate that. Of course, I’m not allowed pencils yet 🙂
I had no idea such a “garden” existed, the views are great, now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to study and find out why sheep don’t shrink in the rain…
Maybe it’s OK if it’s low temperature rain.
Ha, need more sizzle. I have heard that American Airports need more sizzle. Singapore and Dubai have amazing skylines, I am told. I am not sure that I would want to travel to either. I would rather have ole’ London.
What a fun time reading. I do enjoy how you write.
And the toddler…HA!!
Thanks, Carla. I know Dubai is astonishing and Singapore looks it – I’m sure both are worth experiencing. London has the history, of course!
Thanks for this Mike – it looks amazing … just to gaze! They look like models down below … thanks for sharing with us … and your thoughts etc … cheers Hilary
Great photos and a really amusing read too! For all the hype about the garden I would have expected something a bit more exciting but the views are the real reason for visiting I think.
Ever since I saw the news that it was being built I have been waiting for a blogger to take me on a visit! I am more than satisfied with your fine photos of the views and vegetation and you saved the price of a drink. And now you have left me to wonder: why DON’T sheep shrink in the rain?
You don’t have to buy a drink. I’m still puzzled about the sheep…
Glad you were well turned out for the occasion Mike. Sheep don’t shrink in the rain because they’re wearing washable wool !! Promise I won’t mention the Rat’s Bottom, unless of course I’m offered copious amounts of chocolate. I do hate it when parents assume that everyone adores their offspring as much as they do, I would have been tempted to give the little darling a stern teacher look. Thanks for a great review, very entertaining and great photos. I sort of want to visit but I suspect it will be a while before I get round to it.
A stern teacher look – I used to get lots of those!
I loved the views from the Sky garden:)
Interesting and entertaining, garnished with great pictures, as always!
Thank you for sharing in such a clever way, very amusing to read. One of the, now, huge number of places that we shall never visit – I don’t suppose they allow dogs?
I don’t think they would allow dogs – but they let an old reprobate like me in 🙂
Well, it is a fascinating place, and I tend to agree with you about the need for some sizzle, but I’m not sure about the habitat it’s created down at street level.
I’m thinking that habitat pre-dated the current building, Stew!
This is one place that my husband truly wants to visit! He has read different thoughts on it, so I am thankful for this post!
I’ve come to terms with some of London’s more modern architecture, even rather like the Shard, but this one is quite ugly, though as you show with your photos the views are stunning,
Sky Garden’s an interesting touch, though I do think the Walkie Talkie is going to go down in history as an example of how to not build a building.
Well it may be a stretch to call it a garden but a fun place to visit nonetheless.
What a view, sounds like an interesting place, that I will never get to see in person
Very fun to read and giggle throughout, but I think I’ll stick with Strata Tower and the London Eye for good views of the city. Too posh for this budget traveler. 🙂 Enjoyed the photos as always.
The views look amazing, it must have been a wonderful experience.
I would probably be that simpering parent watching their errant toddler wreak havoc on the innocent bystanders 😉
Great post and photography Mike!