Let’s talk Walkie-Talkie

Gort the statuesque robot in The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

The Walkie-Talkie is the nickname of a skyscraper in the City of London, located at 20 Fenchurch Street, that switched on its lights in 2014.

Reminiscent of the arrival of an other-worldly visitor that appeared out of the blue, it sits slightly away from the main cluster of city skyscrapers, as if silently surveying its surroundings, waiting for the moment to strike.

Its eerie, looming presence is bolstered by the enormous curving glass façade that sweeps up into a bulging, top-heavy structure 38 storeys high.

Credit: (left) Colin/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA-4.0; (right) Margaret Murphy

While some people see the handheld communication device that spawned its nickname, the building puts me in mind of the statuesque robot Gort from the 1951 film The Day The Earth Stood Still, a classic sci-fi movie that was remade with much digital mastery (and Keanu Reeves) in 2008.

Arriving out of the blue in a spacecraft with one humanoid alien companion, Gort remains motionless in front of its spacecraft whilst the authorities attempt to examine the structure — much like passers-by stand and stare up at the grotesque Walkie-Talkie structure.

Although designed to be benign, the invincible robot Gort targets people and objects in its vicinity with a heat-ray concealed in its narrow visor. This is not unlike certain phenomena associated with the Walkie-Talkie, at least in its early days, which I’ll get to later.

Credit: Twentieth Century Fox

It’s all about the base

The Walkie-Talkie is unlike anything else you will see in London and you cannot not see it. The other skyscrapers nearby, that once raised eyebrows and blood pressures themselves, look almost normal in comparison.

The building was designed by Rafael Viñoly. Inside, above the cool stone-clad lobby, are 34 storeys of floor to ceiling glass-fronted office space, topped by a four level drinking and dining experience. These top levels of so-called landscaped Sky Garden include public viewing decks full of eastern, western, northern and southern viewing promise.

I once read that you have to be ‘lucky’ to get into the Sky Garden even on one of the bookable free public slots. Although I’m not sure I would describe it as luck. Like James Stewart’s character Scottie in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo, I suffer from acrophobia and experiencing the literally dizzying heights of a skyscraper’s viewing deck is off the cards.

So I avoid skyscrapers like the plague. Add to that the fact that the building gets wider as it goes up, and I wonder how unnerving it must be for occupants to know that their desk overhangs the storeys below.

But one afternoon in early January 2020, I found myself in the vicinity of the Walkie-Talkie and was inexplicably drawn inside…

Going up?

After quizzing the receptionist on how far the lift doors were from the windows on the 35th floor, I was shown the door — in the sense of “it’s about as far from here to there,” as she pointed to the main glass doors of the building. I was calmed by the empathy she appeared to show for my particular problem, as she led me to an X-ray scanner. Before I knew it, I was being shown the lift.

Credit: Margaret Murphy

Not for those with claustrophobia, a surprisingly compact lift whisked me smoothly up to level 35. As the doors parted, I was relieved to be greeted by an opaque internal wall. Then, peering cautiously out into the corridor, I was motioned by another visitor to turn right — and then the enormous expanse of the Sky Garden opened up before me, with floor to ceiling views over London to the south.

The size of this sky complex is truly impressive, however in terms of style, some say the viewing decks are more airport lounge than landscaped gardens. My self-inflicted in vivo exposure experiment took me about as far into the vast expanse of the floor space as the circular Sky Pod bar near the centre. If I were ever inclined to take to drink, it would have been now. I might have ordered a large glass of bubbly to celebrate my achievement, but I was in no mind to stay.

The windows supposedly provide you with an uninterrupted 360° view over the entire City of London, allowing you to compare the other uniquely-shaped buildings that have risen up in the vicinity. But you do have to go up a level to get the complete 360 experience; you can’t get the whole view simply by walking around the 35th floor. Nor, in fact, can you, get a completely uninterrupted view anywhere, because the giant metal window frames spoil about 15% of the fun (a word used jocosely, because none of this, for me, was ‘fun’).

An extremely accommodating waiter offered to escort me up to the next level, by lift or stairs, whichever I preferred, but I declined saying I needed to go solo. He insisted I come and find him should I change my mind. I acknowledged the offer, although if the situation were to warrant that, fainting would probably scupper my chances of ever finding him again.

Gort the robot in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Credit: Twentieth Century Fox

I chose to take the lift up one level to floor 36. The lift doors unexpectedly opened on two sides, one exit leading into the south-facing Darwin Brasserie overhanging the Sky Pod Bar I had just left below, and the other into a walkway leading to the north-facing City Garden Bar. Both views from the lift were adequately far enough away from the windows, but I chose the least ominous brasserie exit, tentatively putting my left foot out.

From there I had four options: (1) take a table in the brasserie’s overhang (too precarious); (2) take the lift straight back down (a bit too soon); (3) take the side staircase back down to level 35, shielding my eyes from the view straight down the outside of the building (err, nope); and (4) slide with my back pressed against the internal wall along the walkway into the City Garden Bar, so I opted for that.

The City Garden Bar on level 36 offers an expansive view, albeit again broken up by the heavy metal cage. This is the north-facing view, so you get to see the concentration of City of London skyscrapers that vie for prominence over some of London’s more diminutive majestic buildings and traditional office blocks.

Feeling that my mettle had been tested enough, I opted not to summit to level 37, where there is a north-facing restaurant and south-facing lounge bar in the domed roof. So I headed for the lift and straight back down to earth.

A talking point

The Walkie-Talkie is only able to afford the unique views of its competitors because it is situated slightly away from the main cluster of City of London skyscrapers. But that, and its bulbous shape, means it does stick out like a sore thumb.

It was the subject of a public inquiry in 2007 attempting to halt its development. In 2006, the planned 200 metre height had already been reduced by a few tens of metres following concerns about its impact on nearby historic buildings, including St Paul’s Cathedral to the west. Walk along some of the streets that run parallel to Fenchurch Street and the towering structure certainly looms menacingly overhead.

Credit: Margaret Murphy

It also seems that the view through Tower Bridge from Shad Thames will never be the same, since the Walkie-Talkie now photo-bombs the previously picturesque postcard shot through the bridge.

In 2015, the building won The Carbuncle Cup, a prize awarded by Building Design magazine for the UK’s ugliest building completed in the preceding 12 months. Don’t laugh too hard, but I read an architectural review which said that from some angles the building’s front elevation has the shape of a panty liner. I can see that.

Be afraid

The Walkie-Talkie’s initial impact on its surroundings has not been limited to beauty contests and objections by heritage groups. Early on, the curving glass façade had the inadvertent effect of being able to reflect and focus sunlight into an intense heat-ray directed onto the street below. There were reports of melted metalwork, scorched paintwork and smoking carpets, whilst smoking office workers complained about the blinding glare as they huddled together outside.

Unlike the laser emitted from the statuesque robot Gort’s visor, the Walkie-Talkie’s heat ray was not strong enough to vaporise, although some have said it was enough to fry an egg and even went so far as to demonstrate it.

Credit: (left) Margaret Murphy; (right) Twentieth Century Fox

If the heat got too much, people were able to cool off in the downdraft allegedly generated by the curve of the building that some on Twitter claimed could knock you off your feet.

It took more than a strong breeze to solve the heat-ray issue though, and a framework of brise-soleil sunshades were brought back into the design of the south-facing façade, having been removed from an earlier redesign.

Throughout this time, passers-by were not the only ones distancing themselves. The architect told the Architectural Record, “So my name is on it, but it’s not my building.”

The Walkie-Talkie has certainly made its mark in ways over and above what was no doubt intended. But unlike Gort and his spaceship which eventually departed, London is stuck with the Walkie-Talkie for decades to come — or at least until it can be hidden from view by something else yet to be constructed in its vicinity.

I don’t normally write about architecture, but I do sometimes write about sci-fi films, which you can read here.

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