Viñoly’s building at 20 Fenchurch Street
The Walkie-Talkie tower’s jarring distortion of the City skyline adds to general unease about Britain’s financial heart, says Owen Hatherley
There is a view of Rafael Viñoly’s just-completed Fenchurch Street skyscraper where its bulging, bumptious form appears just between the two French Gothic-dressed pylons of Tower Bridge. This view has excited some comment, to put it mildly – seen from the south-east, roughly from City Hall, it looks like a grotesque imposition on a celebrated view, an unexpected guest bellowing, “hello!”
Standing outside the apparently meticulous “cluster” of skyscrapers in the City’s heart, the building draws much more attention to itself than it could possibly have done elsewhere. This is treated as if it’s a terrible planning mistake, as if nobody thought the building would have such a distorting effect on the City skyline. Much more unnerving is the possibility that it’s actually deliberate.
The recently retired planner of the City of London, Peter Rees, purported to be a disciple of the art of “Townscape”. As developed in the 1950s by Ian Nairn and Rees’ mentor, Gordon Cullen, Townscape was about the city as juxtaposition, the bringing together of disparate things harmoniously. An architect like Eric Parry working in Piccadilly is under manners, disciplined by the demand to be “in keeping” in materials and scale; the same architect at Wood Street in the City is able to ignore all of that, building a tower in an oblique dialogue with nearby towers by Mcmorran & Whitby and Richard Rogers.
Sometimes this approach throws up intriguing, disturbing juxtapositions – OMA’s Rothschild building cranking itself around Wren’s St Stephen Walbrook, or Peter Foggo’s vigorous, slightly sinister office blocks rearing up against Edwardiana; but sometimes, it’s just gross, as where Jean Nouvel’s inept, lurking shopping mall splits its bulk open to offer a consolatory view of St Paul’s.
In the best of these, historic monuments such as Tower Bridge are not destroyed in Year Zero fashion, nor are they politely complemented, in the manner common to postmodernists and polite modernists, but are placed into complex, sometimes outright weird juxtapositions and discontinuities. All this may largely be because the City is a more demanding client – bending planning to its implacable will more than, say, Westminster – rather than a mere consequence of Rees’ townscape enthusiasms.
However, it adds to the general unease of Britain’s generously state-funded financial heart, the sense that something horribly wrong is happening here: which, of course, it is. And to prove it, here’s Rafael Vinoly’s introduction of himself and his clients’ defective aesthetics, barging right into your picture postcard.
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The “sky garden” at the top of the building