Stepping out of the lift onto the 35th floor at 20 Fenchurch Street in London – commonly known as the "Walkie Talkie" building – is a confusing experience. You're expecting to arrive in "London's highest park". Instead, you seem to be standing in a hotel lobby. There is a lot of brushed steel. There is a notable absence of things you might expect to find in a park. But then, as you weave between the tables and chairs of the garden's bar, the city comes into breath-taking view and provides a momentary diversion from the problematic nature of London's latest attraction.
Your first clue that this isn't a typical park comes when you arrive at reception. Which other parks require you to show photo ID, before passing through airport-style scanners and submitting your bags to be searched? The similarities with an airport do not end there. Initially, the rooftop was billed as the "hanging gardens of modern Babylon", with winding walkways passing through themed gardens representing Europe, Africa, Australasia and the Americas. In reality, the architects have created a departure lounge in the sky, with flowerbeds filling the spaces between three restaurants.
If you want to go up the Walkie Talkie any time soon, these are the places where you'll have to book a table. The Sky Garden opened to the public earlier this week, but spaces are booked up months in advance. You could always go to the Fenchurch Seafood Bar & Grill and order a crisp green salad for £7.50. It comes with a Champagne vinegar dressing, and the fact the chef used Champagne for vinegar should give you an idea of the prices on the rest of the menu. But the biggest problem with the Sky Garden is not that the developers failed to deliver on their early design promises, or the prices of the restaurant menus. It's that the whole building was sold to us on the basis that it would provide a public garden, but the garden isn't public at all.
Throughout the planning and construction process, the space was routinely referred to as "London's highest public park". The Sky Garden website now describes it as a "public garden" and a "unique public space". But the earlier claim remains on developer Land Securities' own website and on the websites of several contractors who worked on the project. Planning documents submitted to the City of London state that the "space will be accessible to all members of the public", without mentioning the numerous rules and caveats that have since been introduced.
Even before the security measures you must book a place online – a process which immediately bars the city's poorest. The booking email arrives with a list of rules. To start with, it sounds fair enough. No "weapons, fireworks and smoke bombs". Not a problem. But no animals? What kind of park is this? Buggies are frowned upon. There's a maximum of three children per adult. You can't bring food and drink from outside. They needn't have worried. Who'd bring a picnic to a park without grass? You might as well eat a Ginsters at the bus stop on your way there.
The full list of terms and conditions goes even further. You can't visit with more than five mates. Public access can be restricted at any time. If you've got a criminal record, you're probably not coming in. Rollerblades, bikes, scooters and skateboards are banned. "Proper decorum, personal behaviour, and conduct is required from all visitors at all times." The message is clear: You're free to visit, at your allotted time, if you play by our rules and leave quietly at 6PM.
Sure, you could argue that the rules and security checks are no different to a hundred other attractions in London, which is partly true. It's cheaper than the Shard, where a trip to the viewing gallery will set you back £25 (you can also enjoy one of the insanely overpriced bars). All the staff are incredibly polite, even when you're not buying anything. You're free to wander around with a camera – unlike many other private places. But the sky garden was promised as public. The truth is revealed by the oxymoronic description on the Sky Garden website which describes the venue as being home to "London's most exclusive social spaces".
In many ways, the Sky Garden is an ingenious solution to the developer's perennial problem. Forced to provide public spaces, how do you keep out troublemakers? Building a fence seems like a crude solution compared to building a park on the 35th floor and deciding who can come in. Designers of so-called public spaces have come up with more and more inventive ways of policing behaviour. Anti-skateboarding devices now adorn almost every bench or ledge within the City of London. Benches are designed to be uncomfortable for rough sleepers. You won't find these things at the Sky Garden. Because why make life difficult for skateboarders, or the homeless, when it's much easier not to let them enter in the first place?
All this should come as no surprise. One of the building's developers is Canary Wharf Group, the same company that owns an entire area of East London which since the 1980s has been transformed into a soulless mecca for financial institutions. The first warning signs that everything might not turn out as planned came when the building's curved glass design accidentally beamed a concentrated sun ray into a neighbouring street and melted parked cars. On the bright side, for a short time it also provided a handy spot to fry eggs on the pavement. The architect himself, Rafael Viñoly, has conceded that "we made a lot of mistakes with this building". But while it might not come as a surprise, it still matters.
The Sky Garden offers a theme park version of public life – complete with a breath-taking view. You won't find any trouble up here: no litter, no homeless, no graffiti, no political protests, no unruly children. "It's safe up here" the owners seem to say. Enjoy your crisp green salad in peace. Just as long as you can pay your way, and meet the criteria for entry. In the age of austerity, when councils can't afford to build parks, we increasingly rely on developers to provide our public space. But what good is it when it comes with a list of rules and regulations to be met? Where are people who don't want to spend money going to while away their days? Where will the disenfranchised go to make their voices heard? As the architectural critic Michael Sorkin wrote: "There are no demonstrations in Disneyland."
As you stand in the Sky Garden and look east towards the cluster of towers in Canary Wharf, or west past the spire of St Paul's to low-lying Mayfair, it's impossible not to reflect that this "park" represents the latest step in the capital's transformation into a city for the privileged few – a literal example of London becoming a "playground for the rich". A park should be a social leveller, bringing people together – Tyskie tin drinkers and pedigree dog walkers having to rub shoulders. Instead, the Sky Garden is the kind of place that keeps us apart.
More like this: