Friday18 August 2017

Carbuncle Cup: Walkie Talkie, City of London

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Here it is, the one so many have been waiting for: Rafael Vinoly’s 20 Fenchurch Street

How do we seriously define bad architecture? Contextual insensitivity? Inelegant form? Environmental damage? Whilst this question has taxed the minds of academics and philosophers for thousands of years, the City of London has conveniently and unwittingly rendered services to mankind by providing a building that conclusively answers this thorny question once and for all.  

To date, the Walkie Talkie is the most nominated 2015 Carbuncle Cup contender and even broke records last year by attracting a flurry of pre-emptive recommendations. Criticism has been as varied as it has been vituperative with quotes ranging from “deeply unpleasant and arrogant” and “just plain nasty” to “weird, sinister and disturbing” and “an unwanted, drunken invader among many friends.”

Of course public derision alone, while hugely important, is no exclusive moniker of bad architecture. Had an equivalent Carbuncle Cup existed in 1960s Australia then the Sydney Opera House would have been a clear winner. Architectural criticism, as well as Carbuncle Cup nomination criteria requires more definitive evidence but, happily, the Walkie Talkie provides this in droves.

Arguably its most ridiculed and harmful aspect is its form, billowing outwards like a swollen middle finger raised in defiant profanity to all and sundry. Whilst the Walkie Talkie’s toxic impact on London’s skyline has been widely and rightly remarked, it is the highly corrosive visual impact it has had on the meandering and intricately composed urban character of historic City thoroughfares like Lombard Street and Lovat Lane that has wreaked far more damage.  

Moreover, conventional or at least empirical wisdom in the City has stated that tall buildings tend to taper in order to minimise their impact on the historic environment, a covenant to which the Gherkin, Cheesegrater, Heron Tower, Shard and even Tower 42 have all felt able to subscribe to but to which the Walkie Talkie, with breathtaking arrogance, has not.

There is also a mistaken belief that what matters most with tall buildings is how they meet the ground but here too the Walkie Talkie fails spectacularly. Instead of engaging with the lively streetspcape that surrounds its base, it slams into Fenchurch Street like a demented headbutt and offers nothing to its immediate environs other than a squat, sterile lobby vindictively surmounted by a boorish bandana of ventilation louvres.

Perhaps the building performs better on environmental grounds? Alas no. The Walkie Talkie’s pyrotechnic proclivities have been widely publicised but just last week it was also revealed that the City is being inundated with reports of “wind disturbance incidents” at its base.

Coupled with the sanitised sterility of its much anticipated sky gardens (according to the president of the London Historic Parks and Gardens Trust, Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, these are “much less interesting and quirky than your average domestic conservatory”) it is arguable that less environmental harm might have been caused had a fracking rig been built on the site instead.

Of course the Walkie Talkie has its supporters, most of them concentrated in the increasingly dysfunctional planning system that gave it permission. The City’s new head of design has recently stated that the building has “a dynamic presence that will endure” and, with poker faces presumably intact, Cabe’s cabal of commissioners once described it as “a successful scheme that would enhance the experience of a world city”. None of which obscures for one moment what the Walkie Talkie truly is: a gratuitous glass gargoyle graffittied onto the skyline of London.



Readers' comments (75)

  • Hurray! Hopefully with the nomination and winning first prize, we as a society can learn from our mistakes and never allow this kind of thing to happen again.

    Fat chance!

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  • Munter Roe

    Let the games begin.

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  • Lots of words here but the basic fact is:


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  • I am Alex

    Truly ghastly

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  • We have a winner...

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  • But it is disturbing that it was clearly as horrible as it turned out to be on the renderings before it was built. Yet there were only timid protests, and it got planning permission.

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  • Aileen Reid

    Unfair to the other nominees, really... might as well go home now

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  • Stop picking on gargoyles. Gobshite would be a far more apposite term.

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  • I am sure I head Peter Rees speak in glowing terms of this building and in particular how its unusual shape had a double gain for the public, a smaller footprint so more space on the ground but more space at the top, freely accessible to all as a new public park - and with the detached site allowing a fabulous view of the city cluster of odd looking high rise buildings. These facts are often looked in the dismissive commentary of this unique and highly successful (given news on letting) building that shows to the world that London is open for business - which I seem to remember being given as absolutely critical for the ongoing success of the economy in attracting bankers et al.

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  • It always brings to mind the opening sequence of the Night On A Bald Mountain scene from Disney's Fantasia ~ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLCuL-K39eQ

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