A Terrace in the Sky

Exploring the Pedestrian Platform, Elevated Over the Bank of Thames River

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Steps to the Thames Path. 65/5.6 Fujinon.

The flâneur’s philosophy is to seek to understand the city by experiencing it on foot. It is an urban exploration that involves embracing serendipity and chance discoveries.

A few years ago, I came across a public terrace with views of the Thames located at the back of St. Magnus House, an office building that is a short walk from the Monument in central London. I should add that the Monument, as it is called in shorthand, is an enormous Doric column, built in memory of the 1666 Great Fire of London.

Most interestingly, this public terrace is connected to some of the leftovers of a network of elevated walkways planned initially for London’s financial district in the reconstruction years after World War II. In the end, not so many walkways were built and later, some were demolished. The terrace in these photographs is the size of a city square. I consider it to be one of the remaining jewels in that incomplete network of aerial paths and pedestrian bridges. St. Magnus House, the building to which it is attached, is a late 1970s office block sandwiched between Lower Thames Street and Grant’s Quay Wharf.

Tower Bridge in the distance. 180/5.6 Fujinon.

What do these photographs tell us about the relationship between this elevated terrace, the buildings surrounding it, the river and, most importantly, human presence?

The terrace seems to be seldom used, as I illustrate with images of a lone jogger doing some stretches. While tourists often crowd London Bridge, and sometimes the river path, perhaps it is a blessing that the terrace is tucked away and a lot less visible. For those who know that this terrace is there, it democratizes access to views that otherwise are only possible from the windows of the office buildings in the area, that is, from space that is private, not public.

Thames Path downstairs, Tower Bridge in the distance. 100/3.5 Fujinon.
Tower Bridge. 180/5.6 Fujinon.

This elevated platform is surrounded by several of the London landmarks. On the opposite bank of the river stands the Shard, the tallest building in London at 310m. If we turn left from facing in that direction, we can see Tower Bridge in the distance. Closer to us, we can see the museum warship H.M.S. Belfast. To our right, we see London Bridge. And when the observer is ready to leave and turns around to walk towards Monument, the reflections on the mirrored windows of St. Magnus House bring the views back for a second glance, perhaps strengthening an already breathtaking experience.

Reflection of the Shard on the windows of St. Magnus House. 180/5.6 Fujinon.

If the photographs manage to capture life in buildings and surrounding streets, it helps convey the story of a place and its use. John Donat (1933-2004), the great British photographer of architecture, put it perfectly: “One scruffy live picture is worth ten perfect dead ones.” He made this observation in a presentation at the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1967. A transcript of which entitled “The Camera Always Lies” appeared in the February 1968 issue of the RIBA Journal. I find Donat’s method inspirational. He brought into architectural photography some of the photojournalistic techniques used by Henri Cartier-Bresson and others. His focus was always on the human dimension.

H.M. S. Belfast in the back. 180/5.6 Fujinon.

The humanity of architecture can be seen in the benefits it brings to people. In this photo series, I concentrate on two benefits of this elevated terrace that stand out. Firstly, it makes more room available for outdoor activity in addition to the space offered by the river path, below. Secondly, it is an observation platform with truly remarkable views. This vantage point is not available at the street level.

I write this in June 2020. Exactly one year has passed since these photographs were taken. As the lockdown measures are being eased in London, it seems that city dwellers in this emerging post-epidemic world could benefit from access to more public space.

London is very densely populated. It is clear that better preparedness for potential outbreaks of infectious disease will require organizing urban space differently to avoid over-crowding and create more space for pedestrian circulation.

It would be very good to see, therefore, the construction of other sky terraces like the one I photographed, ideally as part of an expansion of the truncated London network of elevated walkways and pedestrian bridges.

London Bridge, as seen from the terrace. 180/5.6 Fujinon.

All these photographs were taken with a 1969 Fujica GL690 medium format rangefinder camera mounted on a tripod. Three Fujinon lenses were used. A 65mm f/5.6 that gives an angle of view equivalent to that of a 28mm lens on full-frame 35mm, as well as a 100mm f/3.5 and a 180mm f/5.6 lenses, which offer angles of view equivalent to 45mm and a 75mm respectively.

Detail of the river fronting facade of the Northern & Shell Building, taken from the terrace. 180/5.6 Fujinon.

Although this 6x9 Fujica camera is relatively large as compared to an average 35mm SLR, at least the ones with no motorized film advance attached. However, it is still smaller than some of the well-known 6x7 and 6x8 SLR cameras. Each lens is fitted with a leaf shutter, so the camera is quiet and vibration-free in operation. Advancing the film requires a double stroke.

The photographs were taken on Fujichrome Provia 100. As reversal film is less tolerant of errors, I used a Pentax Digital Spotmeter to determine exposure. The resulting 6x9cm slides boast a surface that is 6.25 times that of a 24x36mm image area on 35 mm film with the same aspect ratio. The E6 process was carried out at a commercial lab, and I have scanned the slides at home.

The Shard across the river, and on the window reflections, London Bridge. 100/3.5 Fujinon.
Steps to the Thames Path. 65/5.6 Fujinon.
Reflection of London Bridge on the windows of St. Magnus House. 65/5.6 Fujinon.
Mirrored windows, St. Magnus House. 65/5.6 Fujinon.
St. Magnus House and bridge over Lower Thames Street at a distance. 100/3.5 Fujinon.
Lower Thames Street, taken from a pedestrian bridge. 100/3.5 Fujinon.
Lower Thames Street, taken from a pedestrian bridge. 100/3.5 Fujinon.

I consider myself a late arrival to digital. At the end of 2012, I acquired my first pro-level data body, and this marked the beginning of a period of about five years in which I only used digital equipment. I revisited film photography in 2017—a new project required that I source a film body. I ended up re-acquiring a model that had been one of my favourites before I began shooting digitally. A few more film cameras followed that purchase.

I should mention, however, that I do not consider myself a nostalgic person. I am very happy that digital equipment does, in fact, exist. My goal at the moment is to embrace both types of gear in my photography.