When I went on an architectural tour of the Gherkin, architect Spencer de Grey spoke about how very few buildings really make use of their roofs for anything other than the mechanical things necessary to make the building work properly but the novelty nicknamed buildings – the Gherkin, the Shard, the Walkie-Talkie, seek to do just that. However, access is another question. In the case of the Shard, their top floors have been monetised through the creation of The View from the Shard, charging tourists and Londoners somewhere in the region of £20 a time to see London from the Sky. The Gherkin on the other hand limits its use to private members or functions only. The Sky Garden at the Walkie Talkie (aka 20 Fenchurch Street) sits somewhere between the two.
I booked tickets and a few weeks ago went along to visit the Sky Garden myself. At ground level, upon entry to the building, tickets must be presented together with photo ID in order to gain admission. I’m not sure I understand the requirement for photo ID to be honest, I mean, what does it prove? That I am who I say I am? How does that allow for a more secure building? Unless they’ve done some sort of terrorist check on me from the booking details (you are required to give the names of those who will be visiting), in which case it makes me wonder how on earth the time and effort in doing so for maybe hundreds of visitors each day makes it worth it. Once past a bag check and metal detector (slightly more understandable), you enter a shiny lift which whisks you up to the top floor. You step out from an unremarkable lift space into the light atrium and immediately the space and beauty of the lines and light hits you. It’s all glossy and new, gorgeous shiny floors, clean lines and the late afternoon winter sun coolly lighting the space.
I hadn’t booked to eat in any of the three food spaces – the Fenchurch Seafood Bar and Grill, Darwin Brasserie or Sky Pod Bar – so I was simply there to enjoy the space. The restaurants occupy the centre of the building and rise up, staggered on three different levels in the cavernous space. Alongside these run green spaces of plants and trees which are flanked by staircases leading up to the back of the roof area.
I took a quick walk around, enjoying the glimpses of some of London’s gems, like the dome of St Paul’s, rising out of the wintery haze. But it was as I wandered around the Sky Garden that I started to become aware of its limitations and my initial awe at the space faded somewhat.
The appeal of roof space in such a prime central spot in the city must be the fantastic 360 degree view of London moving around from the Shard to the London Eye, St Paul’s, the BT Tower, the Gherkin, Canary Wharf, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge and back to the Shard again. The problem is that whilst all of these buildings can be seen from the Walkie-Talkie, the lines of the building and the design of the space create few clear sight lines that aren’t hindered by either metal poles and struts or reflections.
This flaw is felt most keenly at the back of the Sky Garden which is an under-utilised large expanse with what could be a fantastic view over the Cheese Grater and Gherkin save for the fact that a long wooden bench runs along the back and prevents a floor to ceiling view, together with a horizontal bar which, for anyone that isn’t 6ft tall (ie. 5ft 5″ me) sits right at eye level and cuts across the view, disrupting its impact.
A long lens or camera held very close to the glass windows mean that it’s just about possible to eliminate problems with a clear view in photos but it was something I definitely felt quite keenly as I walked around.
As for the garden for which the space is named, it feels less like a garden and more like two manicured borders. Although I’m sure that the logistics of getting trees up to the 35th floor of a building are interesting, the ‘garden’ felt like a decorative accent – a way to fill what would otherwise be a soulless metal and glass void. Although there are inlets into the garden with some seating, there is no way to stroll through it or feel like you become part of it.
And don’t think that you might be able to enjoy the garden as a garden. With a prohibition on bringing in food or drink, this is definitely not the sort of place you can picnic and sit and enjoy the views or generally do anything you might expect to do in a public park.
Interestingly, the Londonist has computer generated images of how it was supposed to look (ie. much like a park) and how it ended up looking. The initial vision seems to have been compromised by the restaurant element.
Although the plants clearly need some time to bed in and really take root, it can at least be said that at times the flora elements do provide a wonderful frame for the city.
Despite the fact that I visited on an unseasonably mild and calm February afternoon, the terrace which looks out over the Shard was disappointingly closed off, leaving me even further from the view to the South.
As the sun dipped lower I sat for a while overlooking the Sky Pod Bar and watched the tourists and realised that it reminded me of a cruise ship lobby. Shiny and sparkly, with tinkly jazz playing from speakers ‘hidden’ in the shrubs. There’s a kind of sterility to the place which made me feel uneasy in its glossy tranquility.
The ‘public’ nature of the Sky Garden was apparently a condition of the grant of the planning permission and it feels like it. The space feels designed for private events, where getting close to the view is not the priority. Allowing the public to visit, with three days’ notice, after undergoing security checks and with restrictions on what can and cannot be brought into the building means that the Sky Garden feels like a conciliatory nod to the public access requirement, rather than a genuine embrace of its enviable position within the city.
Would I recommend visiting? Yes, but only because it’s free.