Great Glass Millefeuille

Rosemary Hill · The Shard

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.


  • 2 June 2011 at 6:50am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    I don't know who the developers are, but this is all about turning money into more money. I remember reading the blarney about ''Centre Point' at the corner of Charing Cross Road which the developer didn't want to let off in floors, only the whole building was on offer. How long did he wait? Don't remember, but what I do remember is that the building was worth far more after a couple of years of being vacant than it was when it was built. Money was turned into more money.

  • 3 June 2011 at 2:45pm
    hexam says:
    Here’s a useful breakdown by Edwin Heathcote in the FT on how usage of the Shard was looking earlier this year.
    Rosemary Hill is right that there’s no genuine public space (apart from the viewing gallery at the top) in Renzo Piano’s building. It’s depressing but that’s down to the developers and the planners, even if one wonders what would happen if the starchitects refused to work on commercial projects which don’t properly contribute to the cities that make them richer and starrier. (Pigs would fly past in formation and rivers would run backwards?)
    It seems very wrong, however, to lump in the Shard with the execrable Strata Tower. Is it worth pointing out that the Shard, though tall and apparently nearly finished, is still completely under wraps? What it actually will be is a glass spire —- not the lumbering, concrete-skirted Dalek in the sky we see now. The building’s greatest effect is likely to be on the outside, when the 11,000 cut-glass panes start reflecting the city. Whether that’s too small a benefit for such a big project is something that should have been discussed. Personally I’m looking forward to it, and already like seeing it everywhere, but that’s neither here or there.
    New Delhi provides a rather different lesson. It doesn’t matter that the Viceroy lived in his new house for only 16 years (from 1931). The hubris of its makers aside (but why must it be about them?), New Delhi had already replaced Calcutta as the capital of India in 1912. Afterwards, no one ever seriously suggested that it should change back.

  • 3 June 2011 at 3:58pm
    Matt D says:
    Geoff: I don’t know who the developers are, but this is all about turning money into more money.

    The developers are the Sellar Property Group (pics of Irvine and James Sellar up the Shard here), financed by Qatari money.

  • 6 June 2011 at 2:53pm
    outofdate says:
    Architects are notoriously bad at 'public spaces', public housing, anything public really -- buildings, really -- except waterfront monuments to the dead art form that is opera, but who'll tell 'em? Roger Scruton? This paper's always on at the poor Prince of Whales to cease his carping, to say nothing of slavering lickspittles to the Grossbaumeister like Jonathan Glancey at the Guardian, and the rest can just be dismissed as enemies of progress (which in fairness they probably are).

    Whole thing's fucked.

    • 6 June 2011 at 3:08pm
      outofdate says: @ outofdate
      This is a nice picture of it though. If you look closely you can see it crushing a bunch of humans in its left fist.

  • 6 June 2011 at 3:23pm
    willharwood says:
    I like it. I'd like it even more if there was a general policy to give foxes free rein over its floors, but what does a building have to be? The Gherkin doesn't have any public access at all, but is still an asset to the City. The Shard lights the eye -- it looks quite astonishing from London Bridge, looming above. It's not a public park, but it isn't being built on one either. It makes the world a little less dull.

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