Head in the clouds

I spoke to Derrick Pover and Sue Heaps of o1Creative about the design of three restaurant spaces within the SkyGarden, a dramatic space spanning the top floors of 20 Fenchurch Street (otherwise known as the Walkie Talkie).

skypod view

It’s the garden that isn’t a garden and the public space that isn’t exactly public. That’s what the critics say at least and it must be admitted that the SkyGarden has had its fair share of criticism since its opening in December 2014.

Touted as an indoor park and viewing gallery, SkyGarden is the space at the summit of 20 Fenchurch Street, that recent addition to the London skyline dubbed the ‘walkie talkie’. Whilst one might take issue with the quantity of flora or the accessibility of the public booking system, one cannot argue with the view: a breathtaking panorama of the city from Alexandra Palace in the north to Crystal Palace in the south.

Within this extraordinary environment 150 metres above the London streets, multidisciplinary interior design practice o1creative were tasked by the project’s catering contractor Rhubarb with creating three destination food and drink venues. Visit the SkyGarden now and you will discover The Sky Pod Bar on Level 35, The Darwin Brasserie on Level 36, and the Fenchurch Seafood Bar and Grill at the very top, Level 37. Each space is a standalone bar or restaurant with a distinct food offer as well as an individual interior aesthetic concept.

However, long before the Soho-based o1creative could think about soft furnishings or light fittings, there were complex technical design aspects to address contingent on the location of the space at the top of a commercial skyscraper. The relatively confined nature of the SkyGarden demanded careful planning on behalf of the designers to take into consideration ventilation, heating, gas and water services, and heating systems. “You can’t start thinking about the finishes until you have made the mechanics work. People don’t necessarily appreciate just how complex a building such as this is,” comments o1creative design director Derrick Pover.

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O1creative had limited prior experience of either designing restaurant interiors or working in high-rise buildings. However, the company’s extensive portfolio of retail design, that includes prestigious work for Harrods and Selfridges, provided a solid grounding in managing large luxury projects. “Good design is about solving a problem,” adds Pover. “If you listen to the brief properly and do a good level of research it does not matter if you have done that particular specialization before.”

The design agency was involved in the project at an early stage, when the space was little more than a bare steel shell, and this helped the problem solving process in enabling the designers to grapple with broader technical challenges before turning their attention to the detail of interior design and finishes. O1creative director Sue Heaps explains that planning the air conditioning system to accommodate three separate food and drink spaces was in itself the work of four months.

“Some consultancies might only do the ‘creative’ side of things,” she says. “We take control of everything from concrete slabs to the finished article. That is what we do on every project we work on and it is important because we can design those systems [air con, sprinklers, ventilation and so forth] so they are not adversely affecting the look of the space.”

Somewhat unusually, o1creative elected not to put the fit-out contract to competitive tender. They chose to work with specialist leisure industry contractors WFC, a decision which Derrick Pover argues led to a relationship of trust and shared responsibility as opposed to a situation where the contractor has an incentive to cut cost at any opportunity. “The idea of not going out to tender is quite a radical thing,” he says. “But by getting your contractor on board early you make them part of the team and you can be honest with them about delivering to a certain price so they are working with you rather than against you.”

The project was delivered on time and at a cost that the client Rhubarb was comfortable with. The result is three spaces that each have an individual design identity whilst sitting coherently in the spectacular setting of the SkyGarden.

The Sky Pod Bar in the main atrium area serves coffee and cakes through the day and cocktails and canapés by night. The space is ambient, meaning it is a similar temperature to that outside. With this feature in mind, o1creative referenced changing seasonality in the design concept: in winter months seating is accessorized with faux fur and cashmere blankets whilst the summer will see the introduction of a more exotic theme so the bar area is more beach cabana than ski lodge.

The lower of the two restaurant pods hosts The Darwin Brasserie, an all-day eatery named for the naturalist and botanist Charles Darwin – a link that is picked up in the interior design through a palette of neutral colours inspired by a volcanic island and botanical drawing motifs.

The Fenchurch Seafood Bar and Grill on Level 37 is a ‘refined dining’ offering. Here the design speaks of exclusivity and luxury with rich leather banquette seating, lighting and bar accessories by top design brands, and a unique private dining room that can be occluded from the public gaze by liquid crystal glazing – ideal for reclusive VIPs and camera-shy celebrities.

“We looked to celebrate the unique aspect the restaurant has on the cityscape around this iconic building,” adds Pover of The Fenchurch. “Diners look out over a spectacular sea of lights and architectural forms. This glittering matrix of patterns is reflected in the design of the restaurant bar, with the backdrop featuring a series of rear and illuminated tiles and mirrors.”

Indeed, attention to detail when it comes to lighting is evident throughout the three spaces. Thanks to advances in LED technology, o1creative were able to use the more energy efficient, longer life LEDs rather than Halogen bulbs, but still achieve a warm quality in the light. All of the LED fittings are connected to a sophisticated DALI dimming system which allows central control of lighting levels to create just the right atmosphere.

It may have been a long and complex project, but the SkyGarden has yielded impressive results and with three distinct restaurant spaces now complete, o1creative is hopeful of further restaurant design work in the future.

This article originally appeared as the ‘Briefcase’ feature in New Design 115.

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