Wednesday, September 9, 2015


Walkie-Talkie Building
London, England
Hello Everyone:

Some buildings get no love whatsoever.  Sometimes it is a matter of taking the time to appreciate a building for its hidden charms.  Other times, it is just a pure visceral reaction.  The Walkie-Talkie building (officially called 20 Fenchurch Street) in London, designed by architect Rafael Viñoly, is one of those buildings that people take an instant dislike.  Feargus O'Sullivan reports in his recent CityLab article "London's Worst Building," that the building named "the ugliest British structure completed in the last 12 months" is not loved for a wide variety of reasons that go way beyond aesthetics.

Yours truly would like to say one thing straight away.  The Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Walkie-Talkie building have one thing in common, the ability to melt cars.  Whereas, the Disney Concert Hall's car melting ability comes from its metal cladding; the Walkie-Talkie building's "death ray" (blogger loves this phrase) is the product of its reflective glass.  The Walkie-Talkie building successfully tested out its "death ray" before it was even finished.  Even the sky garden came under critical fire "for falling short of promises to be a truly public space, and for feeling like 'an airport terminal.'"  Some buildings get no love.

How the Walkie-Talkie building is supposed work
 If its "death ray" capabilities earned the Walkie-Talkie building the wrath of car owners, the building's concave design also earned the enmity of the public.  Feargus O'Sullivan writes, "...the building's overall concave design has been charged with created a down draft powerful enough to knock people over."  How this building received "a grant of planning permission" (a building permit) was a scandal in of itself, considering "the planner's report warned that it would cause significant visual harm."  One thing yours truly loves the about the British is they are the masters of understatement.  Be that as it many, the Walkie-Talkie building did earn an award-it won the United Kingdom's annual Carbuncle Cup named the ugliest building completed in the last twelve months.  Can things get any worse?

The Walkie-Talkie building's car melting skills
Apparently, yes.  The Carbuncle Cup Awards, given by Building Design magazine, may sound like a bit of attention grabbing fluff but it has its roots in one of the central tenets of British design discourse-aesthetics.  Mr. O'Sullivan writes, "The term carbuncle, after all, refers back to a 1980 speech criticizing contemporary architecture by none other than Prince Charles, one that, remarkably succeeded in substantially reshaping British planning priorities in the following decades."  This year, in particular, there is a great deal of weight behind the "winner."  While it maybe, in the words of the planner's report, cause significant visual harm, there is actually more to dislike about the building than just its looks.

The Walkie-Talkie Sky Garden
Honestly, the building's bulbous, top-heavy mass make it loom heavily over the surrounding neighborhood and river.  It does not even look like its eponymous communication device.  In a stinging critique, Mr. O'Sullivan writes, "Its silhouette has perhaps been more accurately described as like a 'sanitary towel'" (think feminine hygiene product) bulging at the top providing better views to the high-rent tenants.  While this building may appear to feel intrusive, public opinion of structures immediately recognized as eyesores does tend to soften over time. Mr. O'Sullivan wistfully opines, "One day, Londoners might feasibly get to like this clunky stud of a building, though that in itself may not be proof of quality."  What is even more mind numbing is the way it usurped itself onto London's skyline.  Had Londoners known what was really in store, there would have no way, in this life time or any other, that the Walkie-Talkie building would have gone up.

The strange neighbor
Believe it or not, it was the airport terminal-like sky garden that swung the approval process in the Walkie-Talkie's favor.  This nod to green washing was the building's ace up its sleeve-"a lush new public space that would supposedly compensate for the tower's visual intrusion."  The sky garden was advertised as a vertical park with pastoral landscaping and stunning views of London's bustling skyline. The sky garden was intended to add to the city's collection of public spaces with a place that was both stunning and accessible.  Stunning as in it stunned the imagination and accessible to mostly those who could afford to partake in the pricey restaurants and bars with a wee bit of public space.  Accessible?  Sure, if you are a non-diner, advanced entry reservations are required.

You can fry an egg on the sidewalk
In front of the Walkie-Talkie building
Feargus O'Sullivan reflects (no pun intended),

In some ways, the garden is a perfect reflection of the direction Britain's capital is taking, in contemporary London, a 'public' garden can now mean a tiny embattled private space squeezed between luxury businesses, to which access is controlled by a phalanx of security.

Still reeling from the sharp sting of public criticism, London city planner may actually take action on the sky garden.  The City of London Corporation is already considering a major overhaul of the sky garden to bring closer to what they originally approved.  However, this may be a case of too little, too late when it comes to salvaging the building's tattered reputation.  Even architect Rafael Viñoly has suffered from the howling criticism, although not quite as badly as the planners who let go through. Planners are not perfect, they need some love too.

The Walkie-Talkie with the Gherkin Building

While the phallic looking Gherkin building may engendered quite as many howling critics as the Walkie-Talkie building, no one is throwing in the towel on London architecture just yet.  London is a treasure trove of stunning new and older buildings.  The winners of this year's Royal Institute of British Architects best London buildings are evidence of this.  Yet, for all its architectural glory, London is gaining a reputation for questionable architecture that seems more driven by private greed.  Follies like the Walkie-Talkie speak volumes about developers who seem to prefer catering to the posh classes than creating something in the public good.  Yet, this is frequently the story of architecture.  However, for a city such as London, these monuments to ego and greed do more to damage the London brand than enhance it.

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