When a Sky Garden is nothing more than an empty promise

Last week, I visited the Sky Garden on top of a skyscraper in The City of London, on a mission to make up my own mind about the controversy surrounding this once reputed public park in the sky. Fortunately, I was able to book a place for the very next day, not exactly show-up-and-see, but better than the three day waiting times that other visitors have described. Registering online however is akin to booking a flight, not the only analogy to an airport experience that has been leveled by critics of the Sky Garden. I dutifully arrived in good time the next day and took a few photos at street level, pleasantly surprised to discover a green wall at the base of the building. ‘This looks promising’, I thought to myself. ‘Perhaps the Sky Garden has green credentials after all?’ Twenty Fenchurch Street is a 37-storey glass and steel tower just a floating cinder away from the former location of Thomas Farriner’s bakery, site of the Great Fire of London in 1666. Standing directly beneath, it appears to defy gravity, curving where all surrounding buildings have straight lines, top heavy where others retreat into a narrower profile. Starchitect Rafael Viñoly, may have attracted controversy for its so-called ‘death ray’ design but the building’s profile serves a very utilitarian purpose. Larger floor plates on higher floors attract higher rent yields from tenants willing to pay more per square foot for the views and enhanced prestige in the eyes of competitors and visiting clients. In recognition of this fact, it seems likely that Viñoly and developers, Land Securities and Canary Wharf Group, were only ever going to secure planning permission for such a design if they could appease public discontentment by providing them with access to the highest and widest floors of all. And so we are left with what has been referred to as a ‘bullying bulge’ by Oliver Wainwright, architect writing for The Guardian newspaper, or in other circles, as the eponymous ‘Walkie Talkie’ or even ‘Walkie Scorchie’.

© 2015 Climate Change Cafe

The distinctive curvature of the building is clearly visible


As I passed through the dedicated ground-level entrance to the Sky Garden, I was met by a doorman, who passed me to a greeter, who then directed me to a baggage machine and walk-through X-ray manned by two security guards. All very professional, if not airport like. Emerging from the lift on Level 35 into bright light, I found it hard not to be impressed by the cathedral-like vault that opened up before me with 360-degree views across all of London. It felt light and airy, open space above and around, freeing, despite the curving lines of white steel. I walked across the event space, past the Sky Pod bar, and out onto the open-air terrace facing directly south. The Shard, Western Europe’s tallest building stood straight ahead, the iconic Tower Bridge to the left, and the River Thames winding directly below. It was only as I returned inside the building that I noticed the gardens for the first time.

© 2015 Climate Change Cafe

Event space at Level 35 at the foot of the gardens


Two strips of ‘hillside’ vegetation extend either side of the main attraction, a giant glass box housing the Sky Garden’s brasserie and seafood grill restaurants. It may not be high on every visitors list but it’s clear from the pride of place afforded to it that the developers of 20 Fenchurch Street take a different view. There are perhaps two points on either ‘hillside’ that allow the visitor to leave the stairway and semi-immerse themselves in the greenery. But try as I might, I could not imagine myself lost in a jungle thicket, no matter how briefly. Cycads, palm trees and giant ferns predominate, as sprinklers on poles that could surely be disguised better, deliver a fine spray of mist at periodic intervals. Red Hot Pokers and Bird of Paradise flowers inject some much-needed colour on lower slopes and add a dose of ‘tropicality’ to the overall experience. But as Peter Rees former chief planner for the City of London, who originally approved the building, admitted: “I think calling it a sky garden is perhaps misleading. If people are expecting to visit it as an alternative to Kew, then they will be disappointed. ” At a rough guess, I estimate that one quarter of the total floor space in the Sky Garden is devoted to greenery.

© 2015 Climate Change Cafe

Stairway on the westside of sky garden


The most frustrating aspect of the development is that the Sky Garden could deliver so much more for a tiny fraction of the overall £239 million cost of the entire building. Even if you begrudgingly allow for the commercial necessity of two restaurants and a bar (in total there is room for four hundred diners at a time), so much of the remaining empty space still remains paved in tiles rather than covered in soil. Let’s not forget that the Sky Garden occupies three levels with the largest floor plates in the whole building and so it is staggering how little space is devoted to the ‘public’ gardens. A ten-metre wide platform juts out from the topmost restaurant, serving no real function other than to look down upon other visitors two levels below. Nobody is going to bother stopping here for any length of time since the latticework of the building impedes any view of the city. By now I was beginning to agree with Oliver Wainwright’s description: ‘It feels a lot like being in an airport terminal, jacked up in the air’ than the cathedral-like vault of my first impression. I can only imagine that the perspective from inside the seafood bar and grill is even more remote – a glass box within a glass shell. All of this space could have been a continuation of the landscaped gardens, a mountaintop plantation of sorts. The northern end of the Sky Garden similarly has a large empty tiled area that has no amenity of note other than a line of benches alongside a wall of glass. Even the main event space on the bottom level, dotted with dining tables, has plenty of room to accommodate a collection of large potted plants in between. At the very least, it would bring the vegetated slopes that bit closer and give visitors the illusion of being in a tropical garden as they sipped on their lattes.

© Climate Change Cafe 2015

Large open space directly under roof on Level 37


Aside from such cosmetic improvements, there are many missed opportunities that could elevate the Sky Garden to something more than just an empty brand name. The space could have an educational value – none of the plants are labeled by name, origin, habitat or medicinal use. Perhaps the gardens could even play a role in conservation by providing a home to endangered plant species. It could serve to promote awareness of environmental issues such as unsustainable oil palm cultivation in Indonesia and Malaysia. How much investment would be needed to install half a dozen or so interactive displays to inform people of sustainable agriculture or the devastating impact of our consumption patterns upon tropical rainforests? However, the uppermost floors of Twenty Fenchurch Street would serve a far more productive purpose if they separated their revenue generating hospitality side from the viewing platform and garden attraction. Ideally, the restaurants and bar would all sit below the gardens, which could then fully occupy the topmost level and largely be open to the elements. This green roof would then create real value for the entire building by absorbing rainwater, providing insulation, creating a habitat for wildlife, and helping to lower urban air temperatures by reducing the heat island effect. In fairness, the Sky Garden doesn’t make any claims to be a green roof, or to have any green credentials at all for that matter, but what a missed opportunity. Visitors would be freer to walk amongst the greenery and take in the cityscape below from sheltered viewing platforms along the sides. The potential role of such a green roof to educate the public would also be far more meaningful, as it would be a working model that demonstrates the importance of green infrastructure in an increasingly urbanized world. This would be a project worthy of earning the name ‘Sky Garden’.

© 2015 Climate Change Cafe

Gardener at work amongst cycads and ferns


The existing Sky Garden is first and foremost a space for dining and entertaining, then a viewing platform, and lastly a giant glass atrium housing the equivalent of a modest potted plant collection. Time and time again, I felt as if I was Jonah stuck inside the rib cage of a giant whale. The architecture of the building dominates just as much from the inside as it does at street level. The end result is a confusing experience where the visitor isn’t quite sure why he or she has ascended thirty-five stories in the first place. ‘Ah yes, to see the Sky Garden of course!’ It almost comes as an after thought. The gardens could never be described as a public park as originally promoted in the developer’s planning application. Let’s be honest with ourselves: London doesn’t really need an indoor park on the 35th floor of a building anyway. The real loss is the wasted potential to create an experience for the visiting public that showcases what it means for a building to be sustainable, by incorporating green infrastructure into parts of our cities that are often left redundant. You lure them up with the promise of a spectacular view and then you show them how their city can become a greener, healthier, more sustainable place to live in. Seeing that there is a penchant for attaching humorous names to prominent skyscrapers in London, I would like to propose that we rename the Sky Garden. Any suggestions?

All photos Copyright © 2015 Climate Change Cafe


Can London find it’s own High Line?

Eurostar platforms are visible in the mid-ground as a long glass structure supported by a lattice of blue steel

New York and the borough of Manhattan, in particular, is a high-rise city where the eye is constantly drawn above street level to gaze at gleaming towers and glittering lights. It is rather apt then that the latest addition to the city skyline should also rise above the heads of passing pedestrians. The High Line stretches along an abandoned rail freight line for almost 1.5 miles along Manhattan’s West Side. It is a creative response to the challenge of increasing urbanization and competition for precious land resource in our cities. The High Line is a prime example of industrial regeneration that has found new use for an outdated transport system by transforming it into a valuable piece of green infrastructure. 

However, the High Line is hardly a new concept. It is an idea “borrowed” from the French and effectively a modern day gift from France to the American people just as the Statue of Liberty was presented to the American nation in 1886. Opened in 1993, the Promenade Plantee is a 4.5km park along a 19th century railway viaduct in the 12th arrondissement. Although the High Line website does provide a cursory mention of the earlier Promenade Plantee in Paris, it has firmly rebranded the concept of an “urban linear park” with the Big Apple logo. Now all talk is about New York exporting another cultural icon that other cities are clambering to emulate in some shape or form. In this respect, the High Line has the potential to have an effect far greater than it’s 1.5-mile length.

Let’s not forget about our own urban linear parks in London. The superb 2km long Mile End Park in the East End comes complete with Ecology Centre, Art Pavilion and green bridge over the busy Mile End Road – combining educational, cultural, transport and leisure pursuits seamlessly. Or the 4.5-mile long Parkway Walk in North London – longer than either the High Line or Promenade Plantee. Opened in 1984, it follows the route of the London and North Eastern Railway line and now serves as London’s largest local nature reserve. On an even grander scale is the Lea Valley Park, which runs from Ware in Hertfordshire to Hackney Wick in East London although strictly speaking, only the section south of Enfield could probably be classed as an urban linear park. The length of a full marathon (26 miles), it will extend into the Olympic Park for a further 2 miles from mid 2013 as part of the new Queen Elizabeth II Park.

But that’s not to say that we should rest on our laurels. The Landscape Institute, Garden Museum and Mayor of London have recently launched “A High Line for London: Green infrastructure ideas competition for a new London landscape” to be judged by the founders of the High Line amongst others. The competition organizers make it clear that they are not seeking a replica but rather aim to capture the spirit of the High Line by engaging communities with green infrastructure. They also put forward a fine definition of green infrastructure, which pays homage to the need for adaptation to climate change –

Green infrastructure is the network of open and green spaces, including features like green roofs, designed and managed to provide benefits such as flood management, urban cooling, green transport links and ecological connectivity”.

Try as one might, there just isn’t a sizeable length of derelict land in Central London that could capture the imagination and compete on the same world stage as the High Line. The proposal does not need to use an abandoned railroad but presumably it should have an extensive linear form and be located in a high-density urban area. Otherwise what comparison can be made of the High Line at all? I’ve scoured the Internet and have come across several plans for East London in particular. SpaceHive, described as a “funding platform for neighbourhood improvement projects” is championing a green park at Limehouse Curve, a 120m long railway viaduct over Commercial Road. Even the Landscape Institute itself featured an article on their website back in early 2010 with plans for a 1.7 hectare elevated park on the Braithwaite Viaduct in Bishopsgate Goods Yard, Shoreditch. Neither is particularly exciting or radical in my opinion. If London is looking to make a statement and a lasting contribution to green infrastructure, it needs an iconic symbol in the same vein as the London Eye or the Millennium Dome. After all, this should be about raising the profile of green infrastructure.

So I thought to myself, where can I find a piece of disused infrastructure that can be “greened”? Perhaps even an elevated railway track similar to the High Line. Then I remembered some photos I had taken of the city skyline from the London Eye – the giant Ferris-like wheel next to the banks of the River Thames. My eye had been attracted by geometric forms and repeating patterns in the urban landscape beneath me – in particular the tented glass roofs of nearby Waterloo station. Growing from one side is an abandoned 400-metre long glass and steel vaulted structure that disappears behind buildings only to reappear further on.

The five platforms (numbers 20-24) of the former Eurostar terminal have been sitting idle since 13 November 2007 (when services moved to St. Pancras International) at an estimated cost of £1.2 million per year in security and maintenance. Plans are underway to open up Platform 20 to commuter trains in 2014 but that still leaves the bulk of the station unused 5 years after the departure of the last train. So why not develop this prime piece of abandoned real estate for the people of London? In terms of locations, it doesn’t come much more urban or grey concrete than this. The structure resembles a giant greenhouse and with modifications could serve a similar purpose. I’m not suggesting a tropical paradise like the Eden Project in Cornwall – it should showcase plant life native to Britain. Such a huge roof space lends itself to solar power and rainwater harvesting – in the hands of a progressive architectural firm, it could become a model of sustainability and green infrastructure for Central London. It is perfectly positioned to entice nearby tourists from the Southbank and London Eye and to host educational and cultural events. It could serve as a green and pleasant haven for stressed commuters in busy Waterloo station next-door. It could even act as a “therapeutic” route for pedestrians between the station and St. Thomas’s hospital near the west end of the tunnel.

The platforms are now in the ownership of BRB Residuary Ltd, which lies under the auspices of the Department of Transport. With the political will and backing of London’s charismatic Mayor, London could steal the green limelight back from New York. So come on Boris, get on your bike and make it happen!