Throughout 2011 and 2012, the Shard has risen on the London horizon, a totem pole wrapped in glass that gets taller by the day and is now impossible to ignore. Not yet finished, it’s been the tallest building in the UK since December 2010 and when completed later this year will be the tallest in Europe, topping out at 310m (1,017 feet). The Shard stretches 72-storeys (although the mast on top takes it to the equivalent of 87 storeys) and will offer 1.2 million square feet of floor space. They say that on a clear day you will be able to see all the way to France from the top of Renzo Piano’s elegant skyscraper, and while that may be rather fanciful, the impact it will have on London is certainly far-reaching.
London is a city with plenty of tall buildings but the Shard is something else. Few buildings have so divided public opinion. ‘It is grotesquely out of scale with other London landmarks,’ says Jonathan Jones, the Guardian’s art critic, while Sir Terry Farrell, the architect, says, ‘It’s got style and it is a phenomenon. If we come back in ten years, people will feel affectionate towards it.’ The Shard’s developer, a straight-talking cockney called Irvine Sellar, cuts to the chase. ‘There hasn’t been a building like this in living memory,’ he says.
It all began in the late 90s, when Sellar purchased an unlovely office block near London Bridge station. After the government indicated they would support high-density buildings that were built near transport hubs, he decided to ‘maximise the potential’ of the one acre site by building a skyscraper. ‘We decided that if we wanted planning permission we had to get an international architect,’ recalls Sellar. ‘We met Renzo Piano in March 2000 in Berlin. He saw the beauty of the river and the railways and the way their energy blended and began to sketch in green felt pen on a napkin what he saw as a giant sail or an iceberg. The Shard emerged from that piece of paper.’
It took another nine years for construction to begin after English Heritage, St Paul’s and the Tower of London objected to the impact the Shard would have on London’s skyline. A spokesperson from English Heritage offers a view shared by many: ‘We have never denied the Shard as a piece of architecture with merit. Our problem is that it is in the wrong place – it is overwhelming and dominating –and in the backdrop of government protected views of St Paul’s Cathedral.’ Critics cite the fact the Shard looms over the dome of St Paul’s when viewed from Parliament Hill.
Sir Terry Farrell has built plenty of tall buildings and has also worked with English Heritage. He offers an interesting insight on London’s protected views. ‘We have created these visual roads in the sky,’ he says. ‘These rather ludicrous and arbitrary imaginary sky corridors around St Paul’s. I spoke to a Parisian who told me “You British really do puzzle me. In Paris, Haussmann arranged all the roads in long boulevards so you have these long vistas, but you Londoners have Haussmannised the sky even though it is a mess on the ground.” I mean, what’s wrong with seeing the Shard from Parliament Hill? If you really don’t like it, walk 20 yards to one side and the view will be different.’
The development went to a public enquiry, which Sellar won. ‘There is a case to protect certain sightlines,’ he admits. ‘But we’re not living in a museum. We didn’t want a public enquiry but it did make us think a little bit harder and as a result we’ve ended up with a better building.’
The Shard is unusual among London skyscrapers in that it will contain offices, restaurants, a hotel, public viewing gallery and apartments. Sellar says he always wanted a mixed-use building because he didn’t want to rely on any one sector for income, but it was Piano who pushed for what could be the most important aspect of the building –the public galleries right at the top. ‘Renzo thought it was vital the building was open to the public. That didn’t bother me at first, but it does now because we’ve built a building that Londoners feel they own –they can eat there, sleep there and view there.’ Farrell believes that this factor could make it London’s answer to the Empire State Building.
One positive part of the development that English Heritage does acknowledge is the regenerating effect it will have on London Bridge. ‘We have created a new quarter for London,’ says Sellar. Next to the Shard, Sellar is constructing a 17-storey office and retail building called the Place and the company is also assisting Network Rail in refurbishing London Bridge station. ‘That’s what tall buildings do,’ says Farrell. ‘They create a massive amount of demand and that brings in revenues and taxes that allow the council to sort out the immediate area.’
The overall effect on the neighbourhood will be immense and John Corey, chairman of the Bermondsey Forum, says local reaction is positive to the Goliath on their doorstep. ‘We feel it will put the area on the map. The area between London Bridge and Waterloo will become the third biggest economic region in London.’ A new outpost of the White Cube art gallery has opened on Bermondsey Street, and other developments will surely follow the money. Locals, though, are keen to strike a balance between existing independent shopping destinations like Borough Market and Bermondsey Street, and the new businesses that are soon to arrive.
Shane Clarke, Deputy CEO for Team London Bridge, the area’s Business Improvement District, says ‘There are some dissenting voices on the aesthetics, but there’s a feeling it’s going to be a huge driver for regeneration. But some local shops don’t want the big brands coming in on the back of regeneration, and we agree. We have the riverfront which is corporate and touristy and then we have Bermondsey Street which is more bohemian – both those areas complement each other very nicely and we want to create a gradual transition from the corporate shiny stuff to the independent shops on Bermondsey Street.’
The upshot is a striking building that will dominate the London skyline for generations, as well as transform a neighbourhood, one way or another. ‘It’s an amazing feeling to create this sort of building,’ says Sellar. ‘The Shard will be instantly recognisable around the globe like the Taj Mahal or the Sydney Opera House. We may not always be the tallest building in Europe, but we will be the most beautiful.’
This article first appeared in bthere, the magazine for Brussels Airlines magazine.