I hadn’t really seen it until recently. I don’t know how, because now I can’t seem to escape it. It seems to be everywhere I look – like a floater in my eye’s vitreous humour. Perhaps I’d previously enjoyed a kind of selective sight impairment. Now, each time I see 20 Fenchurch Street – suitably infantilised by the media and public as “The Walkie-Talkie” – I wish the blindness would return. Instead, I spend precious minutes standing, staring, willing it to disappear. I’d like to find time-lapse footage covering the four years it took to rise in all its facile Fisher Price grotesquery and play it repeatedly on a loop, backwards; watching it fall, fall, fall – and imagining architect Rafael Viñoly trapped beneath it.
When I see it the Walkie-Talkie on someone’s Instagram, I take issue with it. “There it is, the worst thing that’s ever happened to London since The Blitz.” That anyone would add its bilious façade to their social media stream is baffling to me, but the replies from certain quarters give me a clue: “Things can’t stay the same, cities develop. Look at the Eiffel Tower! The Parisians hated that when it opened in 1889!”
Well yes, they did. But I would take issue with anyone comparing the birth of architectural Modernism in the French capital to the… the… I can’t even bring myself to type the words without feeling the murkier parts of my nether regions twitch uncontrollably… Walkie-Talkie.
Viñoly’s design is the most abhorrent building that has ever been conceived and constructed on British soil
Viñoly’s design is the most abhorrent building that has ever been conceived and constructed on British soil. With its bulbous cartoon form, looming over everything below it like the cartoon exclamation mark you’d find in a child’s doodle pad, it takes the dry wit of postmodernism and immerses it in a swimming pool-sized Jägerbomb made with a cut-price generic energy drink. I find it more offensive than anything that came out of Japan’s bubble years, and even – clutch at those pearls through that burka – Dubai. And hell, they’ve got a 60 storey replica of Big Ben over there!
The only building I find anything as traumatic to look at right now is 432 Park Avenue, the tallest building in New York. It seems to have been designed as a kind of formalist joke, by feeding measurements into a computer without any thought for design flair, bypassing the maquette stage, and going straight into construction. It’s another Rafael Viñoly production. Maybe he’s a kind of stealth, agent for anti-western fundamentalists.
Somehow, we’ve taken our eye of the ball when it comes to architecture in London. The city has been on a white-knuckle thrill ride of urban regeneration for the last decade, from the Olympic village to the glossy but vanilla reboot of Kings Cross. So much attention was lavished upon The Shard – a building that promised so much, but delivered something so clumsy and grubby – that we weren’t paying attention to the monstrosities that were growing in its shadow. At least The Shard looks good on film and after dark (unlike Renzo Piano’s Central St Giles development, which looks like an unfinished Lego factory, cast in the colours of special-edition Le Creusets).
How on Earth did the Walkie-Talkie get planning permission? Some of it is down to the imaginative Sky Garden in its blueprints. It was supposed to be the UK’s tallest public park. Nice idea. But even this aspect has been cocked up disastrously. And let’s face it, it’s not a public park: tickets are valid for an hour, released three weeks in advance, and access is via airport-style security. This isn’t the place for impromptu picnics in a quirky Logan’s Run setting.
That the Walkie-Talkie is also ruinously bad in function as well as form fills me with perverse delight. First it fired death rays off its façade and melted luxury sports cars in neighbouring streets, an act which I like to see as the finest piece of site-specific art to take place in the capital in the last 20 years. Now it’s creating downdrafts so intense that the resulting winds can knock pedestrians off their feet.
You see something that looks like a dock where an Imperial Death Star Destroyer would be drained of its passengers’ sewage
The Walkie-Talkie looks like an architectural student’s joke that went too far. I am reminded of Prince Charles’ notorious “monstrous carbuncle” speech in 1984, which killed Ahrends Burton and Koralek’s competition design for the National Gallery extension, but enraged lovers of progressive design. How we hated Charles at the time. Was London really going to stay preserved in aspic forever? Why shouldn’t it, where appropriate, look as dynamic as Manhattan or Hong Kong? Why couldn’t we build up? For a while, brave new London gave birth to beauty: Richard Rogers’ Lloyd’s building still excites, and the British Library is handsome and somehow inherently bookish. They feel as comfortable in modern London as the Barbican and the 1950s South Bank Complex, despite all the hideous attempts around the latter to tart it up with inappropriate paintwork, graphics and chain restaurants. Also, there are 21st century skyscrapers that work: Heron Tower and Broadgate Tower both have a sexy buzz of financial hub glamour about them, as is fitting for their context. Who wouldn’t feel energised going to work inside one of them? But then you look across the skyline at the Strata SE1, and you see something that looks like a dock where an Imperial Death Star Destroyer would be drained of its passengers’ sewage.
Right now, I’m on the side of Charles circa his follow-up speech at Mansion House, in 1987: “You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe: when it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble.”
The only thing I can appreciate about the Walkie-Talkie is that it has been constructed as an accidental architectural joke, so close to the second most disgusting structure in the capital: Tower Bridge. A more pretentious and puerile structure you’d be hard pushed to find – but at least, unlike Rafael Viñoly’s lofty, rancid milk carton, which manages to be simultaneously decompressed and bloated – it doesn’t seem to follow you around the City of London. C