This post about the Walkie Talkie Building at 20 Fenchurch Street London was last updated on August 20, 2023 and has affiliate links. Read our Disclosure.
Rising gallantly in the historic commercial district of London is one of the city’s distinctively curved shaped skyscrapers famously nicknamed “the walkie talkie building”. Officially based at the prime address, 20 Fenchurch Street London the walkie talkie building is a 38-storey high-rise hosting commercial offices, a Sky Garden for the public and a social space.
This curvy skyscraper offers a large viewing deck on the 36th floor as well as a vibrant social space on the top two floors (37th and 38th) encompassing restaurants and bars. The London walkie talkie building was completed in 2014 and opened to the public in 2015.
While showcasing an innovative architecture, the building walkie talkie is one of the more contentious of London’s superstructures in the 21st century. The building has had a serious rough ride with glances and many criticisms thrown at it due to its seemingly unflattering concaved shaped architecture along with several things going wrong following its completion in 2015.
In this post, I share what I have learnt in my research about what went wrong with the walkie talkie building, a remarkably peculiar-looking building in the heart of the City’s financial district, set amidst skyscrapers, iconic monuments and off-beat London. As it happens, the walkie talkie building is presently one of London’s main tourist attractions and a place that offers its visitors a 360º view of London’s skyline from its 36th floor for free.
Let’s begin with its famous nickname: walkie talkie; followed by brief look at its official and other nicknames, a brief history, as well as what went wrong with the walkie talkie building along with a quick look at its present reputation as one of London’s most visited attractions in London.
Why is the Walkie Talkie Building Curved?
The Walkie Talkie building has a curvy design with a wider and heavier top. It was designed in that way to maximise floor space at the higher levels and to create a garden in the sky, a little oasis for the public to enjoy. It is an open and vibrant place of leisure offering visitors a different kind of experience of London.
Why is it called the “Walkie Talkie Building”
The walkie talkie building is just what the label says! It is shaped as that of the old-fashioned walkie-talkie, a handheld transceiver. The building has a distinctive curved shape with a heavier top that curves out upward and outward along with a slimmer bottom akin to a two-way radio handset.
The building bulges out in London’s skyline, drawing glances as well as criticisms, and makes the walkie talkie the talk of town with several names attributed to it.
The Official Name and the Nicknames of 20 Fenchurch Street, London
The official name of the walkie talkie building is 20 Fenchurch Street, also famously known as the Sky Garden. It is situated at an enviable address for any businesses seeking a place in London’s financial district.
That said, the building has had a few unenviable names thrown at it. It was once described as “inelegant, bloated, thuggish”. The heavy top is described as a “sore thumb” sticking out. The worst was when the building was awarded the Carbuncle Cup in 2015, for being the ugliest British building. The criticisms did not just end there. Once opened, the public sky garden space was criticised as being “too open” falling short of being a public space but rather exuding the feel of “an airport terminal.” For a while, the walkie talkie building went by a couple of different nicknames: the Walkie Scorchie and Fryscraper for reflecting off sun-rays onto nearby streets (more on this below).
What is the History of Fenchurch Street, London
Fenchurch Street is a well-known street in the financial district of London. It links London Aldgate at the east to Lombard Street and Gracechurch Street in the west, the site to many corporate offices, headquarters, shops and pubs. In the south and towards its eastern end of Fenchurch Street is Fenchurch Station, a mainline terminus that serves East London and Essex.
The name “Fenchurch” simply means “church in the fenny or marshy ground”
The history of Fenchurch Street dates back to the 13th century where a church was built, dedicated to the patron saint of France. It was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. Later, Christopher Wren built St Dionis Backchurch, which was later demolished in 1878.
Over the years, Fenchurch Street flourished, and is the site of many notable buildings and Grade II Listed properties (Lloyds Register and Aldgate Pump). Alongside these are 30 Fenchurch Street (formerly Plantation Place) and 20 Fenchurch Street, the walkie talkie building.
20 Fenchurch Street was a small tower of 25 storeys tall at 91m (299 ft). It was built in 1968 and was notable as one of the first tall buildings in the City of London and hosted a distinctive roof. This building was demolished in 2008, to make way for the construction of the new building in 2009.
20 FENCHURCH STREET aka WALKIE TALKIE BUILDING
It sometimes happens that architects can make mistakes. Afterall, they are humans too. They can inaccurately estimate some factors while designing which may result in a poor, defective structure. This may in turn lead to harm to the surroundings. An architect may have a vision for his creation but this may not always translate into reality. While an architect’s primary aim is to ensure that the building has a natural flow, “fit in” with the surroundings, and received positively, this may not always materialise as envisioned. 20 Fenchurch Street aka the Walkie Talkie Building is one such example.
20 Fenchurch Street, the distinctive commercial skyscraper was designed by Uruguayan architect, Rafael Viñoly. He is an internationally renowned architect, at the forefront of contemporary designs with projects spanning six continents. His landmark architectural structures can be found in major cities. One of his designs that brought him into the circle of architectural royalty is his design for the Tokyo International Forum. Viñoly’s design was acclaimed as a perfectly realised building with absolutely no flaws. However, he did not seem to have had much of the same luck in England, as his design of 20 Fenchurch Street aka the Walkie Talkie building resulted in several issues and controversies.
So, what really went wrong with the Walkie Talkie building?
What Went Wrong with the Walkie Talkie Building, London?
Viñoly originally designed the building to be 200m. However, it had to be scaled down to 160m (525 ft) amidst concerns on how a skyscraper may impact London’s skyline, considering St Paul’s Cathedral Protected View status and the Tower Bridge. With the controversy of the height resolved, the building gave rise to more issues, including costs that rose to over £200 million.
Here are the main issues of the Walkie Talkie building.
During the building’s construction, it was found that the fact the structure curves at the top causes the incoming sunlight onto the building’s facade, the mirror to reflect downwards onto the south streets. Temperature readings were recorded at particular spots at street level and it ranged from 91 °C to 117 °C.
In the summer of 2013, they found that a reflection of a beam onto the streets below was six times brighter than direct sunlight This reflection actually caused irreparable damage to parked vehicles, causing the bodywork to one car to melt. A reporter even managed to fry an egg by setting a frying pan on the pavement. Some called this the “death ray”, leading to the building earning its nickname, the “Walkie Scorcher” and “Fryscraper”.
The issue of the sunlight beam was initially fixed by erecting temporary screening on the streets. It was finally fixed by adding protective airfoil to the building’s facade in 2015.
The shape of the building at 20 Fenchurch Street gave rise to another issue: unexpected wind draughts at street level. The initial wind assessment outlined by the architectural team differed from the actual situation following completion of the building. The down draughts from the tower created a wind tunnel at the base so strong and powerful enough to knock people over as well as cause food trolleys to fly.
Issues associated with the down draught were fixed by installing wind-turbines to help reduce the wind flow.
The Sky Garden consists of the top three floors: 36 to 38. It is designed as a vast and free public viewing space. The execution of the garden failed to meet the vision and expectations of its pre-construction plan. Post completion in 2015, it was discovered that Viñoly’s landscape alterations were not added to the layout of the garden.
The Sky Garden offers free access to the public for 1.5 hours and this must be booked at least 3 days in advance. These restrictions have been criticised widely.
How did they fix the walkie talkie building?
As mentioned above, in 2015, the issues with the Walkie Talkie building were largely fixed. To avert the sun rays, protective airfoil was added to the building’s facade and wind turbines installed to reduce the air flow in the wind tunnel.
WHAT HAS Viñoly TO SAY ABOUT HIS BULKY CREATION?
The skyscraper is bulky, and hangs while towering over the surrounding streets, buildings and river.
According to Viñoly, he was aware and identified the issues during the early design stages but says he lacked the necessary proper tools and software to analyse the effects the building would generate. However, when the issues were identified, the temperature was calculated to be 36º C but it turned out to be double that in reality.
With the building being called a “death ray”, Viñoly places some blame on global warming, saying it was not so hot when he visited London.
While Viñoly is a celebrated architect, he is no stranger to controversies about some of his designs, typically a concave shaped architecture. The Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas is reported to have similar heat reflection issues.
The Walkie Talkie Building London Today
The walkie talkie building or the talkie walkie building today is part of the City of London. While it stands apart as a unique piece of architecture, the iconic building forms a quintessential character of London’s majestic skyline alongside The Shard and the Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe).
While its location at 20 Fenchurch Street is a desirable location in London for any businesses, it also offers a unique experience for anyone to visit the premises for free. It is a great place to visit at any time of the year.
The reception is well lit and inviting with marble floors and limestone wall tiles.
The Sky Garden located at its 36th floor is a lush landscaped garden and a naturally ventilated space. A tranquil leafy oasis to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city for a breath of fresh air. The 36th floor has a large ceiling to floor glass providing 360 views of London’s sublime skyline. There are regular live music, DJs and Yoga Classes.
As far as food and beverages go, Sky Garden offers one of the best dining options in London. Exquisite fine dining is offered at Fenchurch Restaurant, all-day dining at Darwin Brasserie and an all-day dining and drinking with uninterrupted panoramic views at Sky Pod Bars.
London Sky Garden is open to the public daily, Monday through to Friday from 10:00 to 18:00 and on weekends from 11:00 to 21:00. You do need to book your tickets online in advance. You will be given a timed slot and you do have to be there on time. Arrive a few minutes early as you do have to queue to enter the building and go through security.
Book here for a visit to Sky Garden at London walkie talkie building.
TIP: Book an evening slot to catch the sunset over London’s skyline. It is especially beautiful.
Address: 20 Fenchurch Street, London, EC3M
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