Could be taller, though

Renzo Piano’s Shard in London. Not bad, but NOT a ‘vertical city’.

The Shard. It’s a very tall building in London. Also outside London, on a clear day, given the distance from which you can see it. And when I say it’s in London, I mean RIGHT in it: London Bridge, where the city began. This is important. For tall buildings to work well as markers here, it helps for them to be built at the ancient city nodes. Routes radiate from them, which means they command all the best vistas. The £1.5 billion Shard, then, like the earlier Gherkin at the medieval heat of the City, is very well placed. So, of course, is St. Paul’s Cathedral with which it competes. Some find this irksome. I think we can tell the difference.

Tall it may be by our standards, but it’s not nearly tall enough. It holds the European record at 1,016 feet, but as originally sketched back in 2000 by Italian architect Renzo Piano, it was going to be some 300 feet higher still, which made the proportions better. If you’re going to go tall, I say, best to go properly tall. Then the Civil Aviation Authority decided it was about time it imposed a building height limit on London, since – spectacularly but idiotically – the positioning of our obsolescent 1940s airport obliges planes to approach low over the city centre. The CAA came up with a ceiling of a nice round 1,000 feet. On a technicality the Shard was allowed to stick up a tiny bit further, but that was it. So it’s a bit squat, really. When other European cities build taller than us, you can always blame Heathrow.

High buildings form their own category. They become public property, we give them nicknames, we cease to care what they are for. An office building is a dull thing usually, unless it is shaped into an tower like the Gherkin with its almost Jazz Age patterning. Apartment buildings similarly generally pass with little comment – but not if they become high-rise. The Shard, however – officially inaugurated on July 5 though it is finished only on the outside – sets out to be different.

Unlike most towers in Britain, it is not monocultural. It is layered with different uses from bottom to top. It contains – counting from the bottom upwards – shops, offices, three floors of restaurants, a 195-room Chinese-owned ‘Shangri-La’ posh hotel, ten squillionaire apartments, a multi-level public viewing gallery open to the air on level 72 and, finally, way up in the spire on level 78, a ‘meditation room’ for uses yet to be determined. The idea touted by Piano is that, taken as a whole, the Shard is a ‘vertical city’. This is just the kind of nonsense that architects of his generation (he is 74) like to spout. Of course it is not a vertical city. It doesn’t have nearly enough ordinary stuff in it. A tower would have to be a whole lot bigger and more diversified before it could start to claim that. No, it is a vertical enclave for the very wealthy, and as for the supposed sop to the masses of that public viewing gallery, the £25 ticket price (£19 for children) will act as a filter there. With a maximum throughput of 15,000 visitors a day, that’s what we Londoners call ‘a nice little earner’.

But the Shard is a start for Britain, certainly, when it comes to making tall buildings which can multi-task a little, which aren’t dead after hours, which are neatly dovetailed into the public transport network. At full capacity there will be a population of 8,500 in the Shard at any given moment, plus another 4,000 in its companion office block alongside (taken together, in developer-speak this is ‘London Bridge Quarter’). The restaurant levels alone (floors 31 to 33) absorb 1500 people, grouped round a triple-height atrium. For my money, you get the best outlook from there, nearly halfway up. It’s a myth that views always get better as you go higher. Yes, you can see further from on top and you get the wind in your face but once you’re there, you are mostly looking down. From restaurant level you get more of the detail of the surrounding city in your line of vision.

Many object to the Shard on the grounds that it is a pure speculation,unbridled capitalism, an overseas investment vehicle. All of this is true: it is largely funded by the Qatari royal family, part of their vast programme of overseas investment (the original very London developer, Irvine Sellar, is still in charge and still keeps a financial stake however). It is not a necessary civic building. Nobody clamoured to have it, nobody would feel an absence had it not been built. But this is a strange reason to dismiss it. Buildings appear for all kinds of reasons, investment being one of them, particularly in ultra-commercial London where overseas investment in buildings is scarcely novel.

So, as it is there, let’s consider it as an object. Visually I like it on the skyline – the view from Hampstead Heath, for instance, is particularly good, though it’s not so graceful from the south and it has a cloven lump of extra office and aircon-plant space butt-jointed to its eastern flank which does it no favours at all. But I also like the way it erupts implausibly right out of the concourse of London Bridge Station. Getting out of a train there has become a very spectacular thing for millions of commuters as they are suddenly confronted with a glacier of glass disappearing into the sky. That was Piano’s design idea – a building made of ‘shards of glass’ which could dematerialise against the clouds. This I can confirm, as I see it all the time from my office window. Its angled flanks do interesting things with the light, changing in colour and sharpness, and on grey drizzly or misty days it fades out. It’s a giant weather station: one glance and you know what the climate’s doing outside.

Inside right now, it’s a swarming building site – there were 1200 workmen at a time, round the clock, when I visited. It’s full of screeching drills and clanging metal, helmets and high-vis vests. It won’t be finished until early next year. But even so, once I got to a duplex apartment on floor 62, I could see why rumours circulate of £50m price tags. Up there you can look down on helicopters. On cold foggy days you can even be above the clouds. It is alleged that on clear days you can see out to sea. Looking straight down, the railway lines are like a Hornby train set. And of course, it especially faces the financial district of the City of London. If you’re not a Qatari royal, which means you get first dibs on the apartments, you’ll probably be an oligarch with quite an interest in the City.

I was worried that its triple-skin ultra-clear glazing would be a bit on the clunky side. Actually it has been adroitly handled by Piano’s team. At various points in the building the ‘shards’ of this glazing project beyond the edges of the enclosed space: they are neatly finished with stainless- steel rods and bright red connectors. Piano’s old high-tech sensibilities, going back to the days when as young men in the 1970s he and Richard Rogers jointly designed the Pompidou Centre in Paris, are still apparent.

There is an irony here. The Shard is bankrolled by the same Qatari royal family that Prince Charles got so pally with in 2009 when it came to axing a few proposed low-rise apartment blocks at another Qatari- funded scheme, the Chelsea Barracks site across town. The architect whom Charles successfully persuaded them to dump was Piano’s lifelong friend and former business partner Richard (Lord) Rogers. Luckily for Piano, Charles confined his criticism of the Shard to the odd muted grumble. The tower may be visible from all over London and beyond, unlike the largely invisible Chelsea Barracks, but since when has Charles been rational in his architectural views?

Not that the Shard is especially rational either. It’s a symbol of pre-Crash braggadocio which also happens to look a bit like a giant icing nozzle: one expects cupcake-shaped buildings to spring up around it. But then you catch those shimmering glimpses of it from all over, near and far, and you think: you know, this isn’t too bad at all. Somehow, with its Italian architect and its Middle Eastern backers and its Cockney developer, it still knows it’s in London.

Text © Hugh Pearman. First published in The Sunday Times, London, on 8th July 2012. Photos by Hugh Pearman, John Godley and London Bridge Quarter.


The Shard:
Renzo Piano Building Workshop:
John Godley’s London blog: