Londoners fond of heights will now be able to look down on visitors to the Shard, the Gherkin and the Walkie Talkie.
The free viewing gallery at new skyscraper 22 Bishopsgate opens to the public on Wednesday. At an altitude of 254 metres, Horizon 22 is the tallest observation platform in Europe.
That is no mean feat: viewing platforms have been springing up across London at a rate of knots as part of a concerted push to force developers to offer more public space.
Authorities are motivated by concerns that central London could become a ghost town for the bulk of the week if hybrid working takes root. Attracting tourists, rather than part-time office workers, can help keep the City’s economy alive, they hope.
Yet the demands come at significant costs to developers, while viewing decks can also face criticism from locals who are concerned London is being turned into a fishbowl.
Meanwhile, others point out that viewing platforms are a rather blunt instrument to draw in visitors with. As one Reddit user put it when commenting on news of yet another development: “Love all these free viewing galleries where I can look out on all the other free viewing galleries.”
The idea of putting a public observation deck in a skyscraper was pioneered with the development of the Shard, by London bridge, which opened its doors in 2013 and welcomed almost 1 million visitors in its first year.
Today, there are at least eight free viewing platforms in central London, with more under construction. Most are clustered around the Square Mile, just across the River Thames from where the Shard stands.
Stuart Baillie, a partner and head of planning at Knight Frank, says: “The City of London have really driven this as a policy requirement to have these viewing spaces at the top of the buildings, as opposed to having something on the ground floor that’s publicly accessible.”
The City of London Corporation, which governs the Square Mile, has ramped up demands for public attractions such as viewing platforms to help attract tourists to the business districts.
With doubts over whether employees will ever return to the office full-time, the City has committed to spending £2.5m annually on livening up the area with various attractions and events. Part of its Destination City plan launched in 2022 included making its skyscrapers more accessible to the public.
Shravan Joshi, chairman at the City of London Corporation, said: “Creating structures to welcome and wow all visitors through planning and the built environment is a key part of the City Corporation’s flagship ‘Destination City’ programme.
“Free-to-access public viewing galleries have already become a proven success in bringing footfall and spend to the Square Mile.
Experts say that the Cheese Grater at 122 Leadenhall Street would have struggled to receive planning permission today. The narrowing of its upper floors mean it was built without a public gallery in 2014.
Building engineer Chris Edgington from Arup has been involved in the construction of one such skyscraper with a public gallery.
While he thinks it’s positive that local leaders try to strike a balance between the public and developers’ needs, the cost should not be underestimated, he says.
Developers miss out on the revenues from high value floors that would otherwise make “very nice office space”.
“Over the course of the building’s lifetime, the loss to a developer might easily approach seven figures because what you’re thinking about is 10, 15 or 25 year leasing terms,” he says.
Ferrying thousands of members of the public up and down in a building that is also used by, say, banks and insurers also requires additional lifts, a separate entrance and greater staff numbers.
“A lot of the occupiers in these kinds of buildings will be quite security conscious,” Edgington says. “We need to therefore make sure that people who are visiting the viewing gallery are not able to just have free rein in the rest of the building.”
A stone’s throw away from the Horizon 22 galleries, developers were given the go ahead to build another 235-metre tower with a public viewing platform in July.
Plans will soon be submitted for 1 Undershaft, which at 301m will overtake 22 Bishopsgate as the tallest public gallery in Europe.
A spokesman for 1 Undershaft said: “The emerging proposals will deliver a significant package of cultural and creative spaces aligned with the City of London Corporation’s Destination City ambitions. These include an elevated public garden at the very top of the building.”
But how many viewing platforms can such a small area feasibly sustain?
Edgington says: “If you put up 10 buildings all with similar height and stature, do you need 10 viewing galleries or do you need 10 different offers which will be interesting to people?”
Critics also argue the City of London is being myopic in its focus on these elevated observation decks.
“There’s a lack of management policy about the cumulative impact of when you have so many large buildings in one place,” Ben Dewfield-Oakley from Save Britain’s Heritage says.
“These buildings are obviously so big that they impact even long distance protected views of important buildings like St. Paul’s.”
Beyond concerns about the views, there are also worries about privacy.
Locals living opposite the Tate Modern were involved in a long-running legal battle with the gallery about a viewing platform that overlooked their flats.
Earlier this year residents won their court case. Judge Lord Leggatt said: “It is not difficult to imagine how oppressive living in such circumstances would feel for any ordinary person – much like being on display in a zoo.”
The City of London has an increasing number of residents in the borough. Workers and residents alike may resent having tourists gawking at them while they live and work.
Joshi at the City of London insists it is aware of these concerns. He says: “As a matter of policy, we will always deliver new development projects in a way that carefully takes into account the needs of both the building’s tenants, its amenity partners and local residents.”
At 22 Bishopsgate, Horizon 22 is fully booked for its first 30 days. 5,000 tickets were reserved in the first two minutes after pre-booking opened last week. Developers claim tickets were snapped up by visitors as far afield as New Zealand, South Africa and Japan.
Phillip Shalless at AXA IM Alts, which manages 22 Bishopsgate, says: “The public will always be interested in visiting vibrant places such as the City of London, with its wealth and depth of history brought even more to life by venues like Horizon 22.
“If you build it they will turn up.”