20 Fenchurch’s Sky Garden: International Airport meets Garden City

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Welcome to Gate 20: Fenchurch Airport…?
Last week I finally visited the Sky Garden on Fenchurch Street, popularly known as the Walkie Talkie, also famous for being That Building Which Fried Eggs on Telly and Melted a Jaguar. (Commenting on the accidental “death ray” produced by the building, the architect of the Walkie Talkie Rafael Viñoly admitted, “We made a lot of mistakes with this building”…)

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Towering over the conservation area with its obscene light-concentrating bulge of mirror and glass is the skyscraper known as 20 Fenchurch. One of the conditions allowing the building’s erection in this highly vaunted area was that the building would also contain a rooftop park that would be accessible to the public.

Although it is a so-called “public garden”, the space has remained highly controlled by the developers. It might be public in the sense that everyone is free to come up and enjoy the sky garden, but first you’ll have to know how to navigate to this website to book your ticket. Next, there are hourly slots you can book, but these are often hard to come by and basically have to be booked way in advance – a few days in advance or in reality a few weeks in advance.

In fact, the main reason why I had not gone to the sky garden earlier was that I never was able to find an amenable slot in the past…

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What’s curious is that this “public” garden is really still run as if it were a “private” garden or secret club. If you go to the Sky Garden’s free booking website, it welcomes you to “London’s Highest Public Garden” in its header, followed almost immediately by a description of the sky garden as one of “London’s most exclusive social spaces“. Erm…

The result of this booking system is that confused punters who didn’t realise you have to pre-book online are usually turned away at the door, and the queues at the doors downstairs also tend to accumulate as groups of people turn up too early or too late for their bookings. Apparently that if it gets too crowded upstairs they could round up visitors and ask them to leave after their hour has passed – although that did not happen whilst we were there. In any case the rooftop is extremely spacious and apparently has a capacity for 200 roaming visitors (ie: people just coming for the view and not visiting any of the dining establishments).

They keep a tight rein on the number of people allowed to go up at any one time, so it remains relatively spacious and never overcrowded; which I must admit was quite unusual. The mood upstairs on the sky garden remained relaxed and calm, and it was not chaotic, screamy, and unbearably overpacked as many other ‘sky gardens’ I’ve been to this year (ie: Singapore’s MBS Skypark, Melbourne’s Skydeck 88).

But this comes at the expense of the ease of access. There’s something to be said for that element of unplanned chaos that brings a space to life, an organic sense of community life which has been carefully removed from the Sky Garden. Security guards stood in a line, watching silently to make sure no one threw stuff from the balcony. Cleaners stood at attention, meticulously sweeping up any visible rubbish, leaving every surface spotlessly clean. This was not a place you could visit spontaneously or on the whim of a moment. We had the luxury of having booked several weeks in advance and also the luxury of being available to go at a weird time slot of 1.30pm on a weekday – which might not be possible for everyone, and many other time slots simply seemed impossible to book because of the limited slots available.

When you place your booking, they’ll also want your name – it is written that you’ll need to bring some ID, although they don’t seem to check IDs at the door, and you’ll be run through an airport scanner for safety reasons. After your tickets have been checked and your bags have been scanned, its no wonder that since it opened in 2015, many (unfavourable) comparisons have been made to it being more like an airport terminal and less like a public garden or park.

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However, just as how generic Canary Wharf-like places in London have always reminded me of Singapore, the Sky Garden also feels uncannily familiar. Like much of the central part of Singapore, Sky Garden’s aesthetic lies somewhere between “International Airport” and “Garden City”.

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Its that uncanny feeling of “homeliness” that comes with suddenly recognising a generic EXPEDIT Ikea shelf whilst visiting another person’s home in another country.

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To their credit, it appears that since 2015 they’ve clearly worked on the garden, with the tall sprinklers strategically delivering misty jets of hydration on a lush hill of tropical foliage. But its still just a mere vertical garden, an afterthought to hard steel and glass.

As for the comestibles available at the summit: I’m actually glad to say they’ve exercised some restraint in their pricing at the cafe and bar; a cookie is about 2 quid, a slice of cake is about 5 quid, and a pint of Heineken goes for a reasonable price of 5.50. As city prices go, I’ve probably had more expensive, so the one small comfort is that it is not an excessive price-gouge. (Either that or you could say London has now rendered me mad in thinking 5.50 is a good price for a pint in the City..)

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Ah…. the uncanny familiarity of generic shopping malls in different countries. COME! ENTERTAIN YOURSELVES WITH THE DELIGHTFULLY MINDLESS VACUOUS HORRORS OF ENDLESS AIRPORT SHOPPING MALL CAFE WINE BAR WITH ROOFTOP GARDEN!