Sounds lovely doesn’t it – a garden in the sky. A piece of heaven, sold to a property developer to build a place where more people can sell our most begrudged purchases with ease – insurance. So why am I here, at the top of this 38-story building that services the bottom of the food chain? The view yes, the garden for sure, but there’s something more.
20 Fenchurch Street, the landmark address of this, London’s 5th tallest (completed) building is not a place for travelling hippies in bright yellow puffer jackets slinging old canvas bags. But here I am. It’s a place of monochromes and conformity, of minimalism and symmetry. Not a line or person out of place. This is a place as uniform as its occupants, reinforced in steel as they are in bonuses. Don’t be fooled by the building’s defiance of conventional architecture that has given rise to its nickname “Walkie Talkie”, much to the chagrin of its world-renowned architect, Rafael Viñoly. It doesn’t have the framework to understand a fumbling structure like me, a woman who looks like she licked a red smartie and called it lipstick. Which is exactly the point. Who doesn’t want to stick it to the little grey man, to make him feel uncomfortable, to ruffle his perfect parting of hairs with the visual reminder that you are allowed to share the same air, let alone building and amenities, as him. I don’t care if the building got tax rebates for creating a free public space in their building, their discomfort will be at their own expense, not the public’s.
The Sky Garden may be situated at the apex of the Walkie Talkie or, what one critic calls “the city’s zeitgeist. Flashy, greedy and attention-grabbing. The Flaming Ferrari of buildings”, but it’s also one of the few places a commoner like me, with very few golden nuggets in her pocket, can get free access to this inner boys club. And that is priceless. Like the look on the guards face sizing up these two colourful gypsies walking towards him when my sister and I entered the main entrance of the building. Priceless. Or his reaction when he pointed us to the back/side entrance, which I smiled and called “the exclusive VIP entrance”.
The Sky Garden is one of those free tourist attractions that is not as inclusive as it pretends:
It is free but you need to book. Online. And bring the pint out with you. So you better have access to technology and control over your time and money.
It is open to everyone but you need a photo ID. So you better be in soneone’s system.
And of course it’s not free of eyes and surveillance. By the end of the queue, bouncer and security checks, you might get the distinct feeling you were queuing for a rabies jab not an unguided tour.
Inside the Sky Garden, I soon discovered that many strange worlds had been uprooted and planted, side by side, in this controlled greenhouse. The suited bankers and the unsuitable tourists. Veterans looking for a city they no longer recognise by sight or skyline.
Next generation people and technology taking selfies of themselves at just another tourist attraction.
One window looks like a messy motherboard of buildings and cranes, everyone trying to upgrade what was once deemed grand, imperial. A house of commons more than a home for lords.
The clean architectural lines of the building begrudgingly cater for messy things like children, prams, tourists and cellphones. The glass panels reflect history as much as they project the future.
To one side, the old world is being crowded out by cranes and construction. To the other, new money claws at the skies – the Gerkin, the Cheese Grater and the Walkie Talkie. Catchy nicknames suited to a music video trending on the Eurotrash circuit. In between, long leggy ghost buildings stand tall on iconic street corners like expensive prostitutes, bought to launder dirty money, never with the intention to occupy.
And in the middle, floating above the garden is the Darwin Brasserie, an old idea still relevant to this contemporary audience, who hold no new answers to the same old questions: Are we evolving? Will we survive?
I don’t know.
All I do know is that, right now, a garden in the sky feels like a chapter that will be written for the history books, not a science fiction novel.
My verdict: Worth a visit for the view on London, if not life.