High Rise City

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20 Fenchurch Street, or the ‘Walkie Talkie’, ‘Walkie Scorchie’ or ‘Fryscraper’ – call it how you wish, is a 160 meters high skyscraper located in the City of London. Designed by architect Rafael Viñoly and completed in 2014, it offers 34 storeys of office space and other top three floors dedicated to the ‘Skygarden’. It raised many controversies concerning its design, considered to be particularly bad by many architecture critics, and also for the accessibility and organisation of the Skygarden in particular.

Due to its distinctive top-heavy form which bursts upward and outward, floor space towards the top, where rent is typically higher, increases. To access the ‘public’ roof garden, online booking is mandatory, and sometimes a few days in advance are not enough to secure one’s visit. Security check and metal-detectors at the entrance and a long list of The Skygarden vistior rules and regulations , including point such as:

“Visitors arriving early may not be permitted to wait in the Sky Garden entrance lobby.”

and

“the length of time visitors without restaurant reservations may remain in the Sky Garden to 1 hour after their booked entry time.”

may transform a visit to the space in something rather resembling a luxury prison.

In 2015 the building was awarded the Carbuncle Cup, an annual architecture prize, by the magazine Building Design to the ugliest building in the United Kingdom. It was particularly judged as ‘bad design’, because in Summer 2013, while still being under construction, the building acted as a concave mirror when the sun shined directly into it. As a consequence, the reflected light was up to six times brighter than direct sunlight, making the temperature around it rise ridiculously and causing severe damage to parked vehicles in the streets underneath.

Given this information about the building, broader questions arise, which fall into the wider context of the future of our cities. Two major aspects must be taken into consideration when talking about city planning: responding to the housing crisis, which is beyond critical, and sustainability.

A common belief is shared that dense cities have a lower ecological footprint, therefore building towards the sky and concentrating more people on less land, seems like a straightforward answer to sustainability within urban spaces. However, this is true to a certain extent. In fact, as Jane Wernick (2012) argues, “density isn’t a valid excuse for tall buildings”; on the contrary, tall buildings make a greater use of resources both for its construction and functioning in proportion to shorter ones. Moreover, high buildings have negative effects on their neighbours and life on the street level around them: they cast large shadows, produce wind tunnel effects and ‘Canyon Effects’ (pollution from motor vehicles are trapped and concentrated at street level).

When visiting the Skygarden what I really wondered was the usefulness of the space and the building as a whole. The Skygarden is a anything but a public garden; it is just a fancy place like many others to have a coffee and enjoy a beautiful view. Which is fine, but is a  project like really worth £200 million?! What has it given to the city and to the people that live in it? It is just one more entry in the list of iconic postmodern buildings in London that strangely enough attract unreal investments when normal people, not just lower working class, are struggling to find affordable places to live in. Besides, what is the effect of the Carbuncle Cup? Ultimately, it just contributed to increase the building’s notoriety, but in the end the building is still there, pompously standing in the city’s pulsing heart.

So, when commenting on the ‘victory’ of 20 Fenchurch Street, Ned Beauman (2015) could not be more right when he says “It’s an acknowledgment that opinion, taste, criticism and debate are really no more than epiphenomenal spume. That is almost universally the case, but architecture is the field in which it’s most obvious, for the simple reason that architecture involves the erection of gigantic physical indicators, visible for miles, unignorable, undeniable.[…] What the Shard proves about money is only that there is a lot of it around. What the Walkie Talkie proves about money is that we have lost the ability to say no to it, even when it howls giddy demands at us like an addled drug lord riding a zebra through the corridors of his palace.”

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