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The Sky Garden in London but also urban policy and land use

london sky garden

The Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Street occupies the top three floors of the “Walkie-Talkie” building. Designed by Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly in the early 2000’s. The project was delayed for years because of concerns that the building’s ugly construction would ruin the visual appeal of nearby spaces. In retrospect, this concern was certainly true. The building also has numerous flaws, the worst being an Archimedes Heat Ray effect on the neighboring buildings and roads that shoots temperatures up to 196 degrees Fahrenheit and earned the tower the nicknames “Scorchie-Talkie” and “Fryscraper.” The Daily Express reported at one point that the building causes dangerous wind-tunnel effects on the surrounding streets, raising concerns over public safety and working conditions for public sanitation workers.

Not the least criticized is the Sky Garden itself. While sky is acceptable, does garden describe this space? The view of London is blocked by steel support beams at every angle. Is it truly a public space if only open by appointment, for 1.5 hour slots, until 6:00 pm, at which point the public is carted away for the “paying clientele to enjoy the twinkling lights over cocktails?” These issues, writes Oliver Wainwright in a review for The Guardian’s architecture section, make the experience feel more like “an airport terminal, jacked up in the air.” For my part, I felt similarly out of place in somewhere that claims to be “a unique public space” and “an open and vibrant place of leisure” (per the building’s website).

The mere existence of the Sky Garden, however, betrays a deeper tension felt in all public (or “public”) spaces in a hyper-capitalized environment. To Wainwright, the Sky Garden is “the “public park” used to justify building such a vast office block on the edge of a conservation area,” and yet even then is “not the public park that was promised, but another private party space.” He claims that the purpose of the space is to provide a justification for otherwise non-public spaces, the offices taking up floors 1-34. Worse yet, it is only “the catering concepts which make the whole thing viable.” In other words, the space does not exist for, and does not continue to operate because of, the public space that it provides.

Conversely, Peter Rees, the city’s then-chief planner, thinks that the space is designed for socializing. The lurid imagery in his comments are worth quoting in full:

“The secret of the City’s success is having places to gossip,” he told me [Wainwright], describing the financial capital as “a cluster of beehives on a compost heap.” “The honey is the gossip,” he said. “It’s how business gets done: the result of the bees rubbing up against each other by chance. So it’s very important for business that people can party as close to their desks as possible. We are taking every opportunity to create the party city in the sky.”

To Rees, the Sky Garden has nothing to do with money, or maneuvering through otherwise- impassible red tape, or successfully completing another project for the architect’s portfolio and future commision prospects. Social space! It’s how business gets done!

These are the tensions of place in a corporate-capitalist environment: that no spaces can exist without business interest, and that nobody will unilaterally take on the cost to provide those spaces, even if they are “how business gets done” on a macro level. Who is incentivized to do this? The companies that refuse will have more capital on-hand and will survive as the fittest. Non-excludable and non-rivalrous goods are the orphaned children of the free market, picked up, much like actual orphaned children, by government and taxpayer dollars. The essential tension is that we need what Rees describes, but in the market only have what Wainright describes.

This is at great odds with the pre-industrialized world and indeed the pre-industrialized West for thousands of years. But before we mourn the loss of the Greek areopagus or the Roman Forum, we should recognize the great opportunity at present for land conservation and the expansion of public parks. This can only happen by reunderstanding, at a conceptual and a policy level, the idea of use and of land use in particular. Cities that could benefit from a new understanding of land use — Hong Kong, San Fransisco, Zurich, Sydney — will have to overcome major incentives hurdles that have for decades created an economic environment doomed to housing policy failure. To create spaces like what Rees envision for the Sky Garden, cities will need to rezone land for housing (thus also slowing urban sprawl), expand public transit, create new business corridors for the widening of the urban job density, and so on.

However, even if all these problems were to be solved at once, and Ross’s ideal urban policy world was created, it would not be enough. The more foundational question that has to be asked is, do we, not corporations, but do we value common, unowned spaces enough to give of ourselves to preserve them? Not through taxes, but through time, energy, and the humility to pick up trash left by others? This type of civil service, rather than the power politics that consumes churches today, is the truly Christian route to replacing Sky Gardens with a hospitality in place.

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