The skyline’s the limit for London

The Shard shows we’re more than capable of building big if we elbow aside conservative views of the capital.

Tim Abrahams

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Topics Politics

It is not even completed, yet the skyscraper known as the Shard has already set a record for London’s tallest building, surpassing the 235-metre tall One Canada Square in Canary Wharf, east London. When completed in 2012, it will be the tallest building in the European Union. It will be used for offices, residences and a hotel.

Growing up out of the morass of Victorian railway arches and hospitals at its base on the south side of London Bridge, the Shard is a feat of engineering and an important reminder that construction is a complex process. The revealing of the innards of the building has captured the imagination of visitors and residents of London: many have been enthralled at realising the process behind building skyscrapers, which are built around a concrete lift core.

In fact, when it comes to the Shard, it is the engineering rather than the architectural vision that has received most attention. And when the building eventually gets covered in 11,000 panes of glass, it will not be half as impressive as it is now.

The Shard was first mooted as a project over 10 years ago by the Sellar Property Group. It belongs to a different economic and political timeframe, one which sits uneasily with contemporary aesthetic judgments. The initial plan was to build an even taller skyscraper, but the planning permission was refused in 2000. As a result, the developers brought in a new architect, Renzo Piano. This was a smart move to smooth the project’s progress given that Lord Rogers, who Piano had worked with on the Pompidou Centre in Paris, was by that time an adviser to the then-London mayor, Ken Livingstone.

The final pinnacle form of the Shard is supposed to have been inspired by the spires huddled around St Paul’s Cathedral in Canaletto’s eighteenth-century paintings. But this seems nonsensical: the Shard will be three times the height of the cathedral. In fact, Piano’s professed inspiration is rather cynical. For years, the open views to St Paul’s were sacrosanct, partially because of a sentimental attachment to Canaletto’s paintings, in which St Paul’s rises above London’s other churches. The impact of this almost 300-year-old series of paintings has been reinforced by images of the cathedral surviving the Blitz and the strange fetishistic cult that Prince Charles is building around his beloved St Paul’s dome.

Piano, though, has used this rhetoric of spires against his critics. (Indeed, the Shard takes its name from a criticism of the project by English Heritage, which advises the government on historical preservation.) He has argued that the building’s shape means it intrudes less on the skyline than a rectilinear skyscraper – which is like arguing for a conventional bullet over a rubber one on aesthetic grounds. In fact, if anything, the building, with its tapering floor and slowly shrinking floor plates, merely monumentalises the economics of its structure. The lucky few who will get to own one of the apartments at the narrow top of the building will need to spend around £10million.

We can expect more of the guff about slender forms mimicking the church spires. Despite the fact that London mayor Boris Johnson has toned down his anti-tall building rhetoric, the London View Management Framework, published this year by the mayor’s office, increases the protection of the capital’s viewing corridors, detailing no fewer than 26 protected views in the city.

Johnson has concocted this labyrinth of sightlines because he knows that the City of London, the beating heart of Europe’s financial services industry, needs projects like the Shard. One only needs to look at the rental prices. In 2006, Transport for London agreed to rent 200,000 square feet in the Shard at a cost of around £38.50 per square foot. In June 2010, Sellar bought out the contract and now aims to charge as much as £70 per square foot – an astonishing figure that helps turn London into one of the most expensive cities in the world for office rental. In addition, the timing of the financial downturn has left London with a deficit of hotel spaces before the Olympics. The Shard will also have a five-star luxury hotel occupying 18 floors.

The aesthetic arguments appear farcical in the face of these social, economic and technical factors. Therefore, the question of what the ultimate form of the building will be has appeared nowhere near as exciting as the technicalities behind its construction.

The Shard was built by using ‘jump lifts’ that rise in the permanent shaft as the building gets taller. The contractors, Mace, are working under a fixed-price contract, introduced to get the £2 billion project finished in time for the London Olympics. As a result they began the substructure and superstructure at the same time; 550 tonnes of steel columns had to be threaded through the piling of Southwark Towers, which was demolished to make way for the Shard. Engineers scanned in a photocopy of a microfiche record of a hand-drawn original and fitted in each of the 100 or so steel columns. When it came to construction-time they all fitted perfectly.

These details may seem trivial but they are, in fact, important. They show that we have the technology to build in a concentrated way in the centre of London despite all the archaeology and infrastructure that lies beneath the surface. It is the planning obsession with preserving views that holds development back.

In the next few years, London Bridge will become an island of modern development. London Bridge Place, a 17-storey tower, will be built next to the Shard. London Bridge station, a busy but ugly commuter hub, will also get a makeover.

Even Boris secretly knows that the future for busy, wealthy cities like London is to build upwards. Rather than consigning modernity to small stretches around train stations, though, we should be integrating these structures into a more dynamic urbanism. For instance, we should be thinking about how public sections could be linked into the raised walkways of the South Bank. If we are to enjoy the benefits of high-rises we should be thinking of how we can best connect them at higher levels rather than how to avoid looking at them altogether.

Tim Abrahams is associate editor of Blueprint, the UK’s leading magazine of architecture and design.

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