UK's tallest building alters London sky
London - Passengers stepping out of London Bridge tube station cannot help
but crane their necks to gaze at the jagged tower under construction: The Shard
is the tallest building in the European Union and looks like a slice of glass
balanced on the edge of the financial district.
When the tower opens next year, visitors to the observation deck will see
helicopters fly by at eye level and take in the metropolis all the way to the
distant North Downs hills. The structure designed by renowned Italian architect
Renzo Piano dwarfs nearby landmarks like Tower Bridge and St Paul's Cathedral.
The ambitious project speaks of now faded boom times: £1.5bn price tag,
fancy restaurants, corporate office space, posh hotel. But it is being
completed as Britain and Europe totter on the brink of recession - and the
Shard will loom over a city in decline.
Neighbours are hoping the dramatic tower, visible from most parts of London,
will bring big spenders to its south-of-the-river location, for centuries the
less prosperous side of the Thames.
"I like the design, I like the promise. I think it's going to blast
this neighbourhood out of the water," said Cherille McNeil-Halward, aged 71,
who runs a picture framing shop a few minutes away from the Shard. "This
tower will bring people with money to spend here, and that's got to be a good
There is no question that the Shard is a riveting addition to the
traditionally low-rise London skyline. But some complain it dominates the view,
obscuring sights such as St. Paul's impressive dome.
The developer Irvine Sellar sees the project as a symbol of London's status
as a world city. The 310m building is designed by an Italian, financed by the
Qatar government, and the Chinese hotel group Shangri-La were the first tenants
to sign up.
"We want this building to be a building Londoners will feel ownership
of," said Sellar. "You can eat there, you can work there, you can sleep
there. And you can see the view from there."
The building's exterior will be finished in June but it is unlikely to open
until early next year. It will open in a truly historic neighbourhood, close to
the Tower of London, Shakespeare's Globe, and Borough Market.
In fact, the ultra-modern Shard sits at the edge of ancient London. The
first Roman settlement Londinium was nearby on the banks of the Thames. Charles
Dickens' Little Dorrit was set in the streets behind
The developers conceived the project more than 11 years ago when there was a
financial appetite for building tall. But it generated almost immediate
opposition from conservation groups who didn't want the fabric of the city
English Heritage and other groups complained that the design did not fit in
with the surrounding architecture, but were overruled.
Prince Charles, who has waged a passionate campaign against modern
architecture, wryly referred to the Shard as "an enormous salt
cellar" shortly after it won planning permission but has not formally
tried to block the project.
Last year Unesco said it is reviewing the status of the Tower of London as a
World Heritage Site, partly because of the way the Shard and other buildings
loom over its courtyard.
The future of the building is still not secure. Along with Shangri-La, some
restaurants have signed leases, Sellar said, but most of the office space has
not yet been rented at a time when many London-based businesses are striving to
A report by Barclays Capital published this month finds a correlation
between the construction of skyscrapers and financial crises, concluding that
ambitious building projects often open just as the economy declines.
It cites the economic and oil crises of the early 1970s, which coincided with
the completion of the World Trade Centre towers in New York and the Sears Tower
in Chicago. In Malaysia the building of the Petronas Towers coincided with the
Asian economic crisis on 1997. And in Dubai the Burj Khalifa - the world's
tallest building - went up as the emirate almost went bust.
The Shard itself was hit by the credit crunch. Sellar secured funding from
investment bank Credit Suisse in 2008, but the bank pulled out after Lehman
Brothers crashed in September of that year. Eventually the central bank of
Qatar stepped in to finance the project.
Other tall buildings have been built in recent years as London has become a
more vertical city - including Norman Foster's famous "Gherkin." But
the Shard dominates them all, and is likely to become a prominent symbol of
"You are going to see this building from everywhere in the city,"
said Jonathan Glancey, architecture critic at The Guardian newspaper. "It
is going be the building that says 'this is London', and the message it is
going to send is that London is brash, shiny and pretty bling."