When Renzo Piano talks about the Shard, the first thing he mentions is the London panoramas of Canaletto – widescreen views of a city of spires punctuated by the masts of ceremonial barges and cargo boats. It is, he admits, a rather romantic image for an architect building an 87-storey glass and steel tower and London’s most spectacularly visible new building.
Piano is one of the world’s most successful and admired architects. His career kicked off alongside Richard Rogers when they built the radical and hugely controversial Centre Pompidou in 1970s Paris. He went on to design a series of acclaimed art galleries, becoming the art world elite’s default architect. He has designed skyscrapers, airports and the huge Central St Giles development in London. He is a global star and his talent has been to subtly tailor his buildings to their sites, responding to place, space, scale and feel.
But that Shard is big. If Piano’s forte is to weave work into the fabric of place, the Shard sticks out. What is it that makes it a London skyscraper rather than a tower that could be anywhere? ‘Aah,’ he replies, ‘that is a good question.’ He sets off with Canaletto seeing London as a version of Venice. ‘London,’ he says, ‘is a river city, a city of boats. The masts, the sails and then the spires of the churches – but this vision of the city is also about trade, commerce.
‘The other thing that I notice about London every time I spend time there is the sky – it is constantly changing, never the same. The walls of the Shard are inclined so they reflect the sky, which makes it a kind of atmospheric building. You could say that London is a photosensitive city and this is a photosensitive building.’
That idea of glass walls reflecting the sky is an old architect’s standby, as if the reflectivity of glass would make it somehow disappear. The Shard does not easily disappear. In fact its presence on the skyline has radically changed the city’s view of itself, so imposing it has shifted its entire gravity southwards.
It has also ruffled feathers. Writer Will Self compared it to a ‘toothpick jutting out of the rotten old jawbone of south London’ and others have expressed concern over its scale. Its 87 storeys make it the tallest building in western Europe. But perhaps the question is less about what it does to the skyline and more how it affects the everyday life of the city at ground level. The architects of skyscrapers are almost invariably more concerned with the profiles of their buildings than their settings. The junction between skyscraper and street tends to be a fudged compromise from an office which never got to know the specifics of the city – think of Dubai.
Piano is prepared for the question. ‘What happens on the ground – at street level,’ he explains, ‘is the most important thing. The railway station below the building used to be a kind of kingdom of darkness. We are rebuilding it so it will be about transparency and luminosity. And it is fundamentally about making a better street. There are 300,000 people passing by there each day and the Shard expresses that activity and energy sparking up from that point.’
In a way, the Shard grows on you. It is designed to be seen from a distance so it tapers into the sky, becoming an impossibly thin needle. ‘It is broken,’ Piano says dramatically, ‘the surfaces just don’t touch, there is a suspension of the shape. Architecture is all about illusion.’ And the illusion is to convince you that this is an almost two-dimensional shard reflecting the sky around it and disappearing into the sky.
‘I’m not a defender of tall buildings in principle,’ Piano says. ‘They don’t make sense everywhere and just because we have the Shard doesn’t mean that the other buildings around it should be as tall.’ That might be a hint that he would like it to be seen as a pristine tower, with no interference on the skyline. Or that Piano is conscious that this is a very big tower in a city still coming to terms with skyscrapers. Or perhaps that he knows the Shard is a one-off, unlikely to be repeated.
If you really don’t like it, there’s always the observatory near the top where views will stretch for 40 miles over and right out of the city. You won’t be able to see it from there.
Photographs: Adrian Briscoe
Source: KFH ‘Completely London’ magazine (www.kfh.co.uk)