Great Glass Millefeuille
I can see the Shard from my bathroom window. I can also see it from my bedroom and from outside the front door of my office. Millions of other people can see it too as it rises next to London Bridge station. That is the famous thing about it: it’s big. When completed next May it will be, at 310 metres and 72 storeys, the tallest building in western Europe, a fact on which its website and its architect, Renzo Piano, harp relentlessly. It is impossible to overestimate how much size, in the simplest, crudest, mine’s-bigger-than-yours way, matters in architecture. The Strata Tower at the Elephant and Castle enjoyed the not especially impressive title of ‘tallest building in Southwark’ for a few brief months. Now it is eclipsed before it is finished and sulks within sight of its rival, its rooftop turbines (which apparently make too much noise to switch on) sullenly immobile.
But, apart from big, what is the Shard? It is inevitably, according to the developers and Boris Johnson, ‘iconic’. It will also apparently be ‘dynamic’ and ‘vibrant’, neither of which are desirable qualities in a tall building, and simultaneously ‘accessible’ and ‘exclusive’. Piano cannot perhaps be blamed for the PR speak but his own ‘vision’ for his great glass pyramid is surprisingly lame. He is calling it a ‘vertical city’, a phrase resonant of the doomed Corbusian dream of ‘streets in the sky’, which lay behind so many of the most unsuccessful developments of the 1950s and 60s. It will be a city of restaurants, flats (‘the highest residences in the UK’), offices and a five-star hotel. A city without a centre, no school of course, or church, or art gallery, town hall or library, just a great glass millefeuille of individuals getting on.
In this it is very 21st-century. Other, horizontal cities are going the same way: selling off town halls, letting high streets wither in the blast of supermarket competition and closing libraries. Institutions often expand just before they die. Might the Shard be a monument to the idea of the city in the same way that Lutyens’s New Delhi was a monument to the British Empire? The viceroys enjoyed their residence for only 16 years before Britain handed over to an independent India some of the most imposing government buildings in the world.
It seems unlikely that in 16 years time London will have disappeared, that, as in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, the grass will be growing up through the paving stones, but there is something of hubris about the Shard, its determined flouting of the forces of nature and the complacent banality of what it proposes instead. In February, when a fox was found living in the site and was photographed grinning on top of the completed service core, I thought I caught a glint of nemesis in its eye.