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


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