diamond geezer

 Thursday, September 14, 2023

The City of London looks favourably upon planning applications for very tall buildings which come with a free viewing gallery. Get the public into the Square Mile and they'll spend money here is their very reasonable premise, even if it sometimes results in even-more-towering skyscrapers getting the green light. The latest skyterrace to open is The Lookout on the top floor of 8 Bishopsgate, an oddly-stacked office building near Leadenhall Market in the heart of the City's upthrustiest quarter.

It looks like this from underneath, like some giant's been balancing glass boxes on top of each other and not quite lined them up, hence its (not yet widely adopted) nickname of the Jenga. The main reason its profile steps back as it gets higher is to avoid spoiling a protected view of St Paul's, the same constraint which sculpted its slantier neighbour the Cheesegrater. At 204m it's currently the UK's 10th tallest building, but because it's half-surrounded by the 6th tallest and the 2nd tallest it doesn't stand out as much as it could.

The observation deck is open daily from 10.30am-ish to 5.30pm-ish, but stays open until 9pm on Mondays and Fridays allowing moodier after-dark visits. And it really is free, you just pick a half-hour slot, they send you an email with a QR code and up you go. The only problem is how incredibly booked up it's got already. When Ian Visits wrote his "this has just opened" blogpost on 25th August there was near-full availability. I foolishly left it until after the bank holiday weekend and only managed to get up yesterday. This time last week the whole of September had sold out, not to mention every weekend in October, and today the earliest available slot is in mid-November. Book soon.

Although the public entrance to the building looks potentially glamorous it merely shields a small lift lobby and the obligatory security scanner. The team I found here looked understaffed and, in the absence of any written instructions, had a lot of explaining to do (yes metal objects here, no keep your watch on). I bet they spend a lot of time telling people to go away and book. Also they're not coming up with you, merely directing you round the corner to press the button to call the lift yourself. This isn't huge so, dependent on arrivals, you may end up tightly packed or you may find yourself ascending into the sky in a small metal box entirely solo. 70 seconds of 'best don't think about it' starts here.

But whoa, when you step out onto the 50th floor only the viewing platform at the Shard provides higher public access than this. The main space is an L-shaped gallery with floor to ceiling glass windows and stunning views. Management intend to use it for receptions, yoga classes and other private bookings, hence the early closing time, and have also added four separate function rooms for all-day income generation. Rest assured a toilet is provided, should you fancy one of the highest wees of your life, although unlike at the Shard you won't be able to see out of a window while you're doing it.

Now look down. An extraordinary panorama is laid out beneath you, including the tops of buildings you might previously have thought were tall. Shakespeare Tower at the Barbican - peanuts. The Skygarden at the Walkie Talkie - plainly second best. One of the closest is Tower 42, for many years the City's highest building but only from up here is its bank-logo cross-section self-evident. It was especially amazing to look down onto construction at 1 Leadenhall, the next skyscraper to arise locally, where rooftop workers were assembling what's going to be the 34th floor as each individual panel came swinging in by crane.

The tower's location means that what you'll see most clearly is the western half of the City of London, which is generally quite lowrise, or feels like it from up here. Enjoy the geometrical burst of roads that radiates out from Bank Junction, and yes you can see over the top of the Bank of England into its central courtyard. St Paul's Cathedral is perfectly unobscured, behind which is the green sweep of the Victoria Embankment and beyond that the ribbon of the Thames disappears from view. One of the strangest-looking buildings is a long low stepped terrace which I think is the Google groundscraper at King's Cross. If you don't spend most of your visit standing by the window trying to identify stuff you're probably doing this wrong.

You don't get a 360° view, the east of London is almost entirely obscured. You can just about see Docklands out of one window and Walthamstow out of another but not the sector inbetween. But everything else is up for grabs, dependent on the weather and the angle of the sun. I went up on a day with patchy cloud so bursts of sunlight sequentially illuminated different parts of the panorama... Buckingham Palace, Crystal Palace, Wembley's arch, Harrow's hill. And OK south London was a little indistinct due to glare, but overall the glass was doing a good job of not ruining too many photos with excessive reflection.

The attendant told me they're only releasing 50 tickets for each half-hour session, and given they won't all turn up it should never get too busy to have a really good view without jostling. Some visitors I suspect are mostly here for a selfie, so depart early, and a couple of mothers spent most of their time in this unique location sat at the back merely facing each other. Joyfully at no point did anyone official point out that our time was up, and I'm not sure if that's normal but I stayed on for the best part of an hour, repeatedly going back for one last scan round the far-distant horizon.

By my calculations it'd take over 15 years to get the entire population of London up here once, so The Lookout has the potential to get ridiculously overbooked. But it is about to be outdone by the opening of an even higher viewing platform in the building nextdoor, indeed it did feel somewhat ridiculous yesterday to be so incredibly high and yet still looking up at a glass and steel pinnacle towering alongside. That neighbour is 22 Bishopsgate whose 58th floor gallery, named Horizon 22, will be opening to the public in two weeks' time. If you want to be ahead of the game then pre-booking for that starts next Wednesday, at 10am precisely, but in the meantime get yourself up this mighty beast as soon as you can because once it's on the tourist trail you'll never get in at all.

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