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Should I have backed the Walkie-Talkie?

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We all had a good laugh when the office tower melted a Jaguar. But actually, there is nothing very funny about this, says Paul Finch

Thinking about architectural events over the past year, the weirdest concerned the reflected sun rays from Rafael Viñoly’s ‘Walkie-Talkie’ curved tower in the City of London. It was a wonderful silly season story: ‘Office building death ray melts Jaguar’ and so on. We all had a good laugh.
But actually, there is nothing very funny about this. It is going to be expensive to rectify, and as usual the reputation of architecture gets more egg on it. Viñoly’s only public comment at the time was that there were too many consultants in London, and mistakes were bound to happen.

I suspect he was being loyal to his client, or rather the client he has ended up with after the development became a joint venture. The original developer, Land Securities, joined forces with the Canary Wharf group, which is now developing outside its own Docklands patch.

Property folk I talk to have a more simple explanation than superfluous consultants: the Canary Wharf team responsible for the construction of 20 Fenchurch Street dumbed down Viñoly’s design, made a mess of it, and are the architects of their own misfortune. The mud thrown at Viñoly has not been cleared, as it should have been, by an honest admission by the clients that it is their responsibility. They appear to be hiding behind that multiplicity of advisers about which Viñoly complained.

City of London planners are not amused, because they supported what was a controversial development at public inquiry. When consented, the design had fins on east and west elevations and a treatment to the south facade. These elements may have needed some design development, but certainly not the removal that took place. Now the planned facade changes will be the subject of a fresh planning application. Considering the weight given to design at the inquiry, this is not unreasonable.

The polite phrase about what has happened to the architecture following its approval is value engineering. I tend to subscribe to the late Peter Rice’s comment on ‘VE’: ‘It’s got nothing to do with value, and fuck all to do with engineering.’ The building still looks terrific (to my mind) because of its curvature, and the winter gardens at the top have survived, having been more or less a condition of planning approval, promoted by the late Francis Golding (perhaps they could name it Golding Garden as a memorial).

But the architecture has dumbed down. I have been wondering whether I should have appeared at the public inquiry, supporting the Viñoly design on behalf of Design Council CABE, given what has transpired. Nobody likes being treated like a chump.

Rob Noel of Land Securities needs to ask himself whether he wants joint venture partners with a different attitude to standardisation and delivery. Sir George Iacobescu of Canary Wharf might ask whether we should believe what his consultants have been saying at the public inquiry into his housing mega-proposal at the Shell Centre. Would you want to bet on it being built as designed?

Both of them should think about the way that this sort of story taints the image of developers in the public mind. In the previous issue of Property Week, a developer mourned the loss of exceptional design though client audit, and called for the market to be more receptive to creative design that can add value. The developer? Mike Hussey, the ex-Land Securities man who originally conceived 20 Fenchurch Street with Viñoly, and promoted it complete with an appropriate facade design.

For the current development team, it is not just sunshine that is a problem. Moonshine will make it worse.


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