Pity the Shard. London’s iconic new glass tower, unveiled on July 5th to great ceremony, was conceived in boom times and born in mid-economic downturn. Its long-awaited completion – heralded by royalty and marked by an impressive laser show (and Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man performed on a nearby barge by the London Philharmonic) – was blighted by a deluge of criticism. Most of it had nothing to do with the architecture.
The irregular pyramidal tower was inspired by nearby railway lines, the London spires depicted by 18th-century Venetian painter Canaletto, and sailing masts. And it has become a Rorschach test for all kinds of malcontents. “It’s a Qatari plot to take over England,” screamed the comments sections of broadsheets. While it’s true that over 80 per cent of the £450-million mixed-use building is owned by Qatari interests, it was the brainchild of Irvine Sellar. The Londoner first met with Piano at a Berlin restaurant in 2000, where the architect reportedly sketched on the back of a menu an iceberg-like edifice emerging from the Thames.
Also, while many argue the Shard is a symbol of corporate greed, its Qatari investors are Sharia-compliant, meaning its tenants will not be charged interest, and will not include any businesses in the alcohol or gaming industries. Plus, its boosters claim it will create jobs, stimulate tourism and revitalize the area. Will Prince Andrew’s pledge this week to abseil down the Shard for charity help or hinder the detractors? Hard to say.
“It’s a blight on the skyline,” others have vented. But it will soon be in the company of other tall buildings, like Kohn Pedersen Fox’s 288-metre Pinnacle, which seems to have escaped the same scathing reviews. While Norman Foster’s Gherkin elicited strong opinions, it was perceived as a “British” building. And like most of London’s towers, it was in the city, not the South Bank, where the Shard stands conspicuously alone. Then, there’s the Shard’s relationship to its perceived overpowering of St Paul’s. Views of the cathedral were liberated when a series of mid-century towers were demolished in the 1970s and 80s. Now, the view corridor from Parliament Hill reveals the Shard towering above – but not obscuring – St Paul’s. Oh, the cheek of it!
Perhaps it’s just a spate of anti-modern sentiment. As one commentator put it, “English Heritage has this simple formula: Tall = bad.” But in a city with a vertical, high-density future, this argument seems regressive at best.
These were all points to ponder at the ritual unveiling of the Shard on that recent Thursday night when all of London seemed to be out on the streets. Since only those close to the barge could actually hear the orchestra, it was mainly a visual experience. Watching the tower change colour with 12 laser beams pointed at key buildings in London – St Paul’s and the Gherkin included – was like witnessing a sci-fi Masonic handshake, or a secret architectural pentagram.
At times the Shard appeared like a luminescent, alien obelisk. (A friend said it reminded him of a vertical chicken roaster he’d once had in Stockholm.)
The crowd spilled out into the streets afterwards and sang round random street pianos chained to the ground. On the South Bank in front of the Tate, where the new Damien Hirst exhibit is showing, a dark figure out of Oliver Twist played sinister oompapa music from a box, and then disappeared into the night like a ghost of London’s past. In the distance, corporate and Olympic logos glowed in the dark. St Paul’s looked on dignified, if slightly askance, from the other side of the Thames, while the Shard beamed on, oblivious.