PRINT Summer 2011


Renzo Piano’s Shard

Renzo Piano Building Workshop, the Shard, 2009–, London, March 2011. Photo: Nic Lehoux.

THE ARCHITECTURAL HISTORIAN Manfredo Tafuri famously claimed that “no better way exists of grasping what the American skyscraper is not than by studying how European culture has attempted to assimilate and translate [the skyscraper] into its own terms.” For him, the problem with adaptations of the skyscraper in Germany, France, the former Soviet Union, and the UK was that all operated under the erroneous assumption that the skyscraper was “architecture.” On the contrary, wrote Tafuri, skyscrapers were “real live ‘bombs’ with chain effects, destined to explode the entire real estate market.” They were an exemplar of capitalism at its limits, “an instrument—and no longer an ‘expression’—of economic policy.”

It isn’t necessary to share Tafuri’s relentless skepticism to see how European skyscrapers have had to struggle to convince, ever since the first efforts rose from their foundations in 1920s Antwerp, Belgium, and Stuttgart, Germany. Serious attempts in Europe were not made until after 1945: West of the Elbe, Gio Ponti’s and Ernesto Rogers’s alternately sleek and aggressive Milan towers took the decoration off, while to the east, Lev Rudnev’s bizarre, hyperactive neo—Woolworth Buildings in Warsaw and Moscow piled it back on. Next, expatriate European architects like Mies van der Rohe created a new, “rational” language for the American skyscraper and exported it back to the Old World, and Le Corbusier imagined mass-producing his soi-disant Cartesian skyscraper as residential tower blocks. The buildings that resulted might have been architecture, sometimes high architecture—but they weren’t skyscrapers, at least not according to Tafuri’s understanding—and those “boxes,” “packing cases,” and “filing cabinets” have faced decades of popular opprobrium. London is no exception. If anything, its experience with tall buildings is more riven with controversy and high-profile failure than any other city’s—and yet it is now starting to complete one of the most dramatic skylines anywhere in the world, topped by Renzo Piano’s Shard. How did this happen?

In the UK’s brief burst of postwar social democracy, tall buildings served useful purposes. They were nearly all residential, educational, or in some way connected with the welfare state. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the capital’s financial district even began to build what would once have been called skyscrapers in Tafuri’s terms—that is, very tall office buildings whose development was driven by land speculation—with Birmingham and then most other cities following suit. The most visible structures were designed by the corporate architect Richard Seifert, in a style initially indebted to the sleek and chic work of Ponti and the sensual, rippling modernism of Oscar Niemeyer; Birmingham’s Alpha Tower (1969–73) exemplifies the former, London’s Centre Point (1963–66) the latter. Seifert subsequently developed a more original, somber, paranoid manner typified by the inscrutable 1971–80 NatWest Tower (now known as Tower 42), until very recently the City of London’s tallest building. Seifert has been all but forgotten, but his dominance on the skyline continues, rivaled only by Christopher Wren and, more recently, Norman Foster.

When the property-based boom of the Blair years led to a massive demand for office space, the City of London and its Docklands outpost were forced once again to build upward—but the example of the 1960s had unpleasant associations. Centre Point, for instance, lay empty and was both derided in the architectural press and used by campaigners against homelessness as an exemplar of London’s inequalities. The Thatcher-era edifice Canary Wharf, on the former London Docks, was until the beginning of this century another high-profile failure—a bankrupted, lonely beacon. One of the city’s responses, beginning in the late ’90s, was to initiate a series of urban and architectural reforms culminating in the creation of the Urban Task Force, under the aegis of the left-leaning architect Richard Rogers. Operating under the premise that rapacious, chaotic British capitalism had created a messy, largely suburban, and unplanned landscape, the task force promoted modern design and a return to density and urbanism. For all its social aspirations, this was an enterprise that entailed making capitalism look nicer, giving preference to such first-rank, blue-chip international architects as Piano and Rafael Viñoly. Nevertheless, a visceral resistance to tall buildings remained. But the mayor of London from 2000 to 2008, Ken Livingstone, elected as a left-wing protest candidate but very quickly ingratiating himself with the City’s banking industry, was convinced of the need for a new skyline. Initially, this seemed to be merely pragmatic, as the developers of office blocks would be required to fund rental housing and infrastructural improvements. Livingstone’s commitment to this project, however, became rather more enthusiastic when he was dazzled by a 2006 visit to Shanghai. And a way forward for London’s new age of skyscrapers had already been initiated in 2003, with a tower by Rogers’s former partner Norman Foster.

Foster’s skyscraper, built on the site of the IRA-bombed Baltic Exchange, was first officially called the Swiss Re tower, after its sponsors; once they sold it, its name was changed to 30 St Mary Axe, after its address; but it has been known to all and sundry as the Gherkin. Intentional or not, this name is a masterstroke—the domesticity of the reference, the Cockney homeliness of the nickname, indicates seemingly that the alien object had attained some kind of public affection, something no previous London tower had achieved. After the Gherkin was built, a whole raft of towers were announced, almost simultaneously, and all of them were given catchy, domestic nicknames: the Walkie-Talkie, the Cheese Grater, the Helter-Skelter. And, tallest of all, the Shard, designed by Piano, another former Rogers collaborator. These weren’t merely inhuman machines for making money but friendly, iconic objects—or so their names would make it seem.

Rendering of the London skyline including Renzo Piano’s Shard (foreground) and Norman Foster’s 30 St Mary Axe (also known as the Gherkin) (background, left). © London Bridge Quarter.

The Shard is the only one of these towers to have taken its nickname as its official name, and a sign at the top of the concrete elevator core with SHARD emblazoned on it has been London’s highest object for some months. Intended to be the tallest building in Europe, Piano’s tower was soon overtaken by Moscow’s City of Capitals, but its striking disjunction with its surroundings nevertheless indicates something unprecedented. This is London’s first “supertall” skyscraper, meaning it uses the innovations in high-rise construction developed in ’70s Chicago that enabled the Empire State Building, once the highest tower possible, to be overtaken. Hence it is in the exalted company of the Sears Tower, the Shanghai World Financial Center, the Petronas Twin Towers of Kuala Lumpur, and Dubai’s notorious Burj Khalifa; and it really is one of Tafuri’s “real live ‘bombs.’” Its base is so enormous that two earlier high-rises (one by Seifert) were demolished to make way for it. The surrounding terraces and tenements feel utterly dwarfed, while around London Bridge station an extraordinary network of ad hoc walkways leads the pedestrian through a jagged route to traverse the site. Located on the south bank of the Thames, the Shard has no cluster of accompanying towers to soften the blow. It is deforming to the urban fabric, explosive in its context, and, in its unfinished form, thrilling to behold.

The thrill is in watching the Shard go up; watching a tiny skeleton staff of builders erect this gigantic glass edifice, with its bowels still on display; watching as the London skyline has imprinted on it the rude stub of the building’s core; watching the bare steel frame stack up as glass panels chase to catch up with it. Unlike those of the towers designed by Mies and his followers, the facade reveals little about the edifice’s construction—the jagged glass is as much a matter of pure aesthetics as the gothic stone–on–rectilinear steel frame found in the skyscrapers of 1890s Chicago. When the building is completed, all this work will be effaced in order to create an entirely seamless effect, a pure and ethereal “shard of glass” without any trace of human hands—but certainly intended to evoke the pen of its architect. Whether the eventual Shard will be as strange and exciting as its construction site remains to be seen. Renderings, almost all portraying the building from a distance, depict an expressionistic object, as hard and angular as the Gherkin is curved and soft. Its glass panels taper toward several separate points at the tower’s pinnacle, as if to suggest fragmentation, which seems a pat gesture for something so seamless and pristine. On the ground, as the building emerges, it’s another matter—a violent and bizarre architectural experience, the ferocious overwriting of one century on another.

Anyone keen on architects’ observing some kind of urban order, some sense of scale, some dignity or rectitude in the London townscape, would obviously be mortified by the sheer aggression and arrogance of the Shard. It would be advisable for them, though, to visit Central Saint Giles, next to Centre Point, where another tower by Piano was planned. After heritage objections finished that off early in the past decade, the development’s expensive mixed-use scheme suddenly had to shrink, while still returning the requisite level of profit on the investment. The result is a clumsy botch job, a series of extremely dense, stocky, and inelegant blocks crammed into the site, with a grim postage stamp of public space in the middle; in order to distract from this thuggishness, Piano decided to color the entire thing in lurid yellows, oranges, and greens. It’s an embarrassing building, with none of the confidence and clarity of the putative Shard—and if there is an alternative to the Shard, this is what it looks like. If one accepts the system of investment-driven, speculative real estate development that produces these buildings, one also has to accept that for them to have any architectural coherence whatsoever, they have to be tall—very tall.

In this sense, the Shard is a glass gravestone for the past two decades of tentative, halfhearted attempts at urban and architectural reform. Looking at the chaos around the Shard, and at the extreme inequalities it incarnates, it’s hard to imagine this was what Rogers or Livingstone originally had in mind. Next to the Shard is another high-rise, once the tallest in London south of the Thames but now a mere pipsqueak—the Brutalist ’70s tower of Guy’s Hospital, an especially extraordinary survival given that London’s inner-city hospitals have been pressured, as part of the government’s private finance initiative, to sell their lucrative land and move to peripheral locations. The structure will soon be reclad to be “in keeping” with the Shard.

The Shard, conversely, is intended to house high-end offices, luxury flats, a hotel, and a spa. The notion that London could erect a block of council housing or an NHS hospital as one of the pivotal objects on its skyline is now unthinkable. And for that, the sad conformism of a generation that wanted to make late capitalism more rational and more elegant is chiefly responsible.

Owen Hatherley is a critic based in London.