20 Fenchurch Street

How the Walkie-Talkie ruined the London skyline

Comment: Paul Raven discusses the Walkie-Talkie building in the City of London

It’s funny, isn’t it?

You spend most of your adult life (I’m 42) wondering how we allowed certain buildings to be built, and why the people who signed them off have never been publicly humiliated, and yet here we are.

From Elephant & Castle to Coventry and back again the post-War years have not always been kind to our city skylines, and there is no reason why the City of London skyline should be any different. It is still planned and agreed by men and women, in a room, looking over sketches and plans and designs, and saying yes or no.

But what has just happened to London’s city skyline suddenly feels unprecedented.

We have allowed a building to be created that literally takes your breath away. I do believe that the best architecture – and art – should illicit a strong response but I have never felt so angry and so strongly about a building than I have about Rafael Viñoly’s Walkie-Talkie building, or its proper name of 20 Fenchurch Street.

The architect, in fact all architects and artists and creators, is entirely and utterly blameless. They create, that is their job.

But how was a building, this building, allowed to be built where it is, within the heart of London’s heart? In other places I may have enjoyed this top-heavy, dark, brooding, sinister building. But not where it is, not its overbearing and forbidding presence on our London skyline, dominating everything else around it. Its top-heavy silhouette a constant, cyncial reminder of how people will pay more to be higher up with a better view.

I’m reading Claire Tomalin’s fabulous biography of Samuel Pepys at the moment, and I defy anyone to read that, or visit the much-overlooked Museum of London perched on its round-a-bunkle, without feeling a strong connection to this city. An emotional sense of awe and wonder at the scale and importance of it, and how much it has meant to so many generations of people.

We have got better at protecting our buildings, even though we continue to make mistakes. And the fact that John Betjeman is still thanked every day, and Nooks & Corner is still going in Private Eye, suggests we haven’t lost sight of the need to stave off the city’s insatiable appetite for renewal.

But how we make important decisions about renewal, that is still looking for a saviour (it isn’t Prince Charles).

Maybe now that London is undergoing the most extraordinary growth in anyone’s lifetime, and that growth is mainly upwards with literally hundreds of new skycrapers in the planning or building stages, we need a John Betjeman saviour to step in; someone who can rally everyone that has ever looked up and felt a sense of shame and disbelief.

Paul Raven

Footnote: I’m not into singling out individuals for blame as I think these planning decision are part of a long chain  (and one day I will find the time to unpick the chain and trace the entire history of every single person involved in the planning and permission to build the Walkie-Talkie where it is and print it online, with their photos!). However, there is a gay man who is now neatly retired and installed in one of the tall buildings he helped to permit. Peter Wynne Rees is the former City of London Corporation chief planning officer and was so for 29 years, all through London’s unprecedented building boom. Read more about him in this FT profile. Like me he is a gay man who clearly feels passionately about this city, and unlike me he has dedicated his life to its buildings. In the profile he discusses the need for tall buildings in the City.

Footnote Number Two: I’m not even going to mention the design problems that the Walkie-Talkie has had,  chiefly the buildings overhang reflecting the sun and burning holes in cars and pavements! Although if that’s not all very symbolic and foreboding I don’t know what is.

📷 Main photo: 20 Fenchurch Street

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