For the past few months while making tea and staring out of the windows in the office kitchen, I have noticed something slowly but surely take its place among the tall and mighty that are London’s skyscrapers. A streamlined monolith of glass and steel, it will be the tallest office building in western Europe, dethroning Canary Wharf from its long-held title, and at the same time expressing the dynamism in urban architecture that has shaped the capital in recent years.
Dubbed “The Shard of Glass”, this 310-metre high icicle of a building occupies the space of a former office block only a short distance from London Bridge station. It was designed by Renzo Piano in collaboration with the architectural firm Broadway Malyan. Piano, in meeting with the entrepreneur who owned the site where the Shard would appear, sketched an iceberg-shaped building on a Parisian menu and told him that the design was inspired by railway lines and the masts of ships in the Thames. Ironically, Mr. Piano hated skyscrapers.
That was twelve years ago. At a hefty cost of £450 million mostly from a consortium of Qatari investors, the Shard is now nearing its final stages of completion, and is due to be finished in May 2012, with public access being granted a month later.
The Shard at 310 m tall will tower above established landmarks such as St. Paul’s cathedral
Specifications-wise, it’s very impressive. It’s official website describes it as a ‘vertical city’ featuring mixed spaces for office, residential and retail use. There will be five or so 2-storey apartments on the market for £50 million each, a hotel, spa and a public viewing gallery occupying fifteen floors out of the 87 the Shard will have. Its structure is entirely covered in specially-constructed thickened glass designed to be angular and reflect sunlight and the sky, so the Shard will appear slightly different according to the time of day. Possibly also to massage the architect’s ego and disorient birds as well. Top this off with a spire so far up, planes heading towards Heathrow will pass 300 metres over it, giving the managers of the Civil Aviation Authority a few sleepless nights. A crane operator who is currently working on installing the last few panes of glass has noted that you can see across London for a distance of circa 30 miles. Spectators will be able to see Heathrow Airport and a good portion of Middlesex. A quick turn of the neck eastwards and it’s a bird-eye view of the Isle of Dogs, and the mouth of the Thames as far east as Southend. It has even acquired some ‘tenants’ including squatters and a fox, Romeo, who made his home on the 72nd floor after slinking up the central stairwell.
The Shard is certainly a sign of rapid changes. Architecturally, it is a wild dream made real. It seems futuristic, almost ‘Blade Runner’-esque, a shiny pyramid monument that would astound even the ancient Egyptians and Mayans. It is a hallmark of the massive design intelligence and culture that has helped position London as a world leader and idea-generation machine, where anything is possible…especially if you have enough money to burn. But there will be plenty of detractors who will argue that it is a folly, a faddish white elephant that will ruin our skyline and be out-of-date once a bigger, more extraordinary building rises up from somewhere else. Certainly I think it will be worth a visit just to gawk at the panoramic views. Tourists will flock in their thousands, if not millions, and postcard sellers up and down the city will have something new to hawk….it’s a building that is straight to the point.