The Shard: why London is looking up

Never mind the naysaying of its critics: the EU’s tallest building is an inspiring addition to the skyline.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Politics

‘I stood outside the Shard yesterday and looked up. A giant phallic structure, gleaming with rain, as if still wet with spittle from The City’s latest skyward act of financial masturbation.’ Alex Andreou, writing in the New Statesman, must have seen some funny-looking penises in his time, I guess. He certainly seems to know a thing or two about metaphorical self-abuse.

The Shard – or Shard London Bridge, to be precise – is the European Union’s tallest building. At 310 metres, it is a full 75 metres taller than the previous tallest building in London, One Canada Square in Canary Wharf. It looks, to me, like a great glass teepee and its height means it is visible just about everywhere in the capital. It follows you round, like the Mona Lisa’s eyes. There are 72 floors, soon to comprise office space, shops, apartments, a five-star hotel and a five-storey viewing area when the workers, residents and guests start moving in next February.

Tonight, the building will be ‘launched’ with a laser lightshow linking the tower with many of London’s other landmarks. Prince Andrew will be there (never a good sign, admittedly) with the prime minister of Qatar, which largely financed the project. But for many commentators, the best kind of lightshow for the Shard would involve a demolition crew applying a few tons of high explosives – because it is a thousand feet of metaphor for everything that’s wrong with society today, apparently.

Quite apart from Andreou, there was Aditya Chakrabortty’s vomit of disgust about the Shard in Monday’s Guardian: ‘It glowers over your conversations in Peckham; it skulks in your eyeline as you amble along Hampstead Heath. Get up close to Europe’s tallest tower, and its 1,017 feet (getting on for twice the height of the Gherkin) render everything around it toylike, laughable.’

His main complaints seem to be that the Shard was built despite protests from (some) local residents, it symbolises the domination of central London by finance, and it is owned by foreigners who treat it as – gasp – an investment, not a building they themselves want to occupy. In fact, it turns out that minted foreigners are buying up all the nicest bits of London. The Shard, he concludes, is ‘expensive. It’s off-limits. It’s largely owned by people who don’t live here. And it is the perfect metaphor for what our capital is becoming.’

If Chakrabortty’s disgust is mostly for what the Shard represents, Simon Jenkins really just hates the look of it, pure and simple; it has ruined his beloved London skyline. After running through a list of previous architectural crimes, from the firebombing of Dresden to the current destruction of Islamic monuments in Timbuktu in Mali, Jenkins declares: ‘This egomaniacal architecture echoes the tower’s political backers, Ken Livingstone, John Prescott and Boris Johnson, who equate phallic prominence with civic prowess… The Shard shows money trumping planning.’

Ah yes, the penis thing again. Well, I for one have always thought that London’s skyline could do with a bit of a makeover. It’s all just a bit, well, small at the moment. I live in one of the world’s great cities, yet it doesn’t feel that way. I adore walking around New York or Chicago, in awe of the giant buildings. Now, at last, London has something of that buzz. If you want to do something about London’s skyline, perhaps a good start would be to bring the old Luftwaffe out of retirement to flatten the many nondescript buildings that block off the Thames waterfront. As a local, the only thing I’m protesting about is the anti-Shard commentary.

The claim that the Shard is ‘off-limits’ is absurd. Quite apart from the stunning views available – for a fee, presumably – from the public viewing-decks on top, the very existence of the building itself is a joy. Travelling in from my neck of the woods in south-east London to London Bridge station now feels like you’re arriving, not in some dull, crowded commuter station, but somewhere buzzing, somewhere exciting.

Of course, those who built the Shard weren’t doing it for charitable purposes. The aim is to make lots of money and to make a statement, in the centre of the world’s financial capital, about Qatar’s wealth and ambition. So what? If I may be permitted a little hyperbole here for a moment, nobody ever invited me to the moon on board Apollo. It was there to make a statement to the world, an expression of scientific, engineering and military superiority. It hasn’t stopped me, or billions of others, from being inspired by the thought of human beings setting foot on another world.

The Shard isn’t as exciting as the moon landings, of course. But for me, it is a metaphor of a different kind, in contrast to those who bemoan its existence. The Shard embodies the idea that we could, and should, reach for the stars. Whether you like the look of it or not is a matter of personal taste. It is certainly a damn sight more interesting and challenging than the much smaller, boring square tower block it replaced.

The Shard is like a big, fat extended finger to the low-rise, low-growth, low-horizons outlook that is dominating British cultural and political life today. If the Shard is phallic, I like to think it’s saying ‘screw you’ to those who want us to settle for the little we’ve got.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

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