Standing 800 feet above ground level on the 72nd floor of the Shard, it feels surprisingly safe. It’s chic, more classy than the Eiffel Tower or the Rockefeller, with an atmosphere that is somehow reminiscent of Tokyo’s Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills.
Gazing down from what is now Europe’s second highest building, the trains look like worms crawling towards London Bridge, and landmarks like Tower Bridge are oddly flattened and shrunk.
But the fact remains that for some, what’s best about the Shard is that you can enjoy a spectacular view of London without seeing the Shard itself.
The £1.5 billion project, of which 95 per cent was funded by the state of Qatar, has definitely made a strong impact on London’s skyline. But critics say that the Shard is anomalous to the low-rise, historical area of the city where its shadow falls.
Not so, according to the architects. Project architect William Matthews, from the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, says references included church spires and the train tracks at London Bridge.
“We’re not a firm which goes around the world building skyscrapers, but we felt in this location, in this city, at this time, it was an appropriate response,” he said.
“In New York there’s a grammar, there’s a way of designing a building. You have a rectilinear building. It’s just another tree in the forest of New York. In London there isn’t this forest; our context is the sky, building something against the sky, and so we developed a shape.”
The partially open-air 72nd floor is a unique experience. But from the outside, the top of the building looks jagged, unfinished. Why? This is a common question according to Matthews.
“We really wanted the idea that the building actually tapered and sort of disappeared into the sky in some way,” he said. “It softens the building a lot, instead of going ping.”
It’s a building that is better from a distance
For a brief period of time, the Shard was the tallest building in Europe – until that mantle was taken by Moscow’s Mercury City Tower. Matthews dismisses the matter.
“I know clients love that kind of stuff, and the press relations, they like to say that, but the Empire State isn’t the tallest building in the world, the Eiffel Tower isn’t the tallest building in the world. The Taipei 101 was the tallest building for 10 years – who knows Taipei 101? That’s not important.”
The Shard takes up one acre of land but provides 32 acres of usable space. It is home to 10 private residences, three floors of restaurants, 600,000 sq ft of offices, as well as a 200-room Shangri La hotel. Renzo Piano describes the Shard as a “vertical city”.
Yet sitting in its historical context in London, the Shard has been criticised as a symbol of wealth, power, and architectural egotism, only concerned with its own form without considering any of its surrounding neighbours.
The area is rich in history. Up until the 17th century, London Bridge was the only bridge across the Thames. London Bridge Station is the oldest in London, opened in 1836 – and down the road on Borough High Street is The George, the oldest pub in England.
“I think it is a symbol of the symptomatic malaise of our age, in terms of our approach to the built environment,” says Alireza Sagharchi, principal of Stanhope Gate Architecture and chairman of the Traditional Architecture Group at the Royal Institute of British Architects.
“It consciously tries to separate itself from the past, which is really early 20th century ideology behind modern architecture, of being different, of having to separate yourself from the past, a complete break with tradition. And its no surprise that when one works within that kind of framework of ideology you end up with something that is alien to its immediate surroundings.”
According to Sagarchi, the use of glass on such a large scale is not a sustainable solution.
“Building something out of glass only has a shelf life of 40–50 years, which is what the Shard will be. The Shard is essentially a structure covered in glass and that glass will have to be looked at in 40–50 years, like all 1960s skyscrapers have been reclad; it will be a different building, it will have to change its cloak.”
Whether you like it or not, the Shard has become part of London’s skyline. We asked people at London Bridge for their opinions.
What do you think the Shard brings to London? Let us know on twitter: @JaneGrayuk
“I come here every day but I never come outside and look at it. It’s just another glass building. I’m terrified of heights, so I would never go – full stop.”
– Christopher Bassinet, Business Analyst
“I think the architects are definitely aware of the influence Hawksmoor had on London. I think it is a direct reference to steeples. And I like that aspect for sure.”
– Everett Jaime, Independent Inventory Clerk
“It’s quite nice actually, but I feel scared that something might happen – as I am working so close to it. But we hope it will bring more business to our stand.”
– Eunice Akveite, flower shop assistant
Paul Zara, director of the architecture firm Conran and Partners, whose London office is based near London Bridge, is a fan of the Shard, although he prefers it from a distance.
“If you go to [the] South for example and you go to an area like Elephant and Castle, you see a very clear silhouette of the Shard with a lot of sky around it, and I think that looks fantastic. It helps you locate where you are, it draws you towards it. It certainly doesn’t fit in.
“You see listed buildings with the Shard poking up massively out of the top of them and sometimes that can be a disaster and sometimes it can be wonderful, and in this case it is the latter.
“I think it’s slightly disappointing close up, the general cladding of it isn’t that beautiful. It’s a building that is better from a distance.”
The Shard will open its doors to the public on February 1. Tickets are £24.95 for adults and £18.95 for children and can be ordered from www.theviewfromtheshard.com
With additional reporting by Rosemary Byfield.
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