“This building is not going to be a symbol of arrogance.”
Architect Renzo Piano is briefing reporters on the 14th floor of the European Union’s tallest skyscraper: the 310-meter (1,017 feet) Shard on the south bank of London’s Thames, which he designed and nicknamed, and is formally inaugurating today.
Seated beside him are developer Irvine Sellar of Sellar Property Group Ltd., and Qatar Central Bank Governor Sheikh Abdullah Bin Saoud Al Thani. They’re the main funders of a building that, combined with a much smaller adjacent development, will cost 1.5 billion pounds ($2.34 billion) on completion, according to Sellar.
Attacked during its construction as an emblem of lucre and greed, the Shard -- a tall, slim tepee with clear glass sides that refuse to join at the top -- seems to have been adopted by Londoners, who gaze up at it and take snaps.
The Italian architect calls the edifice “a little town” that overlooks London’s oldest bridge and stands on the site of a newly discovered 2nd century B.C. Roman villa.
Piano, 74, has deliberately avoided turning the Shard into another heavily guarded corporate high-rise. Once occupied, it will feature offices, luxury apartments, shops, a Shangri-La hotel, three floors of restaurants, and a ticketed public viewing gallery.
The tower is practically built over the rail tracks of London Bridge station: Its outdoor piazza is a crossing point for the station’s 300,000 or so daily travelers.
As rain thrashes against his crystal tower, Piano joins me for a conversation in front of a large Shard maquette. The genteel Genoese sports a patchy white beard and a beige summer suit with thin blue stripes matching the color of his shirt.
I ask how it feels to complete a building in a global recession and risk it becoming the signpost for a bygone era of wealth. Piano turns philosophical, as architects do.
“The time of cities is a long time,” he says, likening the lifespan of architecture to that of rivers, forests, and mountains. “The economy goes on a much shorter time: It goes up and down.”
“Even the Empire State Building was built in the wrong moment, and it’s still there,” he says. “This building was conceived before the crisis, and it will enjoy life after the crisis.”
Piano doesn’t mind the Shard being the lone skyscraper on the sparsely built southern banks of the Thames. He says that’s exactly why it’s the right place for it: across the river from the capital’s core. “Good cities are made by an element of surprise,” he says. “The point is that you have to make a good surprise, not a bad surprise.”
Piano sprang to fame at a young age. Son of a Genoese building contractor, he worked in the Philadelphia office of architect Louis Kahn before teaming up with Richard Rogers to win the 1971 competition for the Pompidou Center in Paris -- still his best-known work. He won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1998.
Reluctant to take credit for reinventing museums, he says architects don’t change the world, they witness shifts within it. With Pompidou, he and Rogers captured the need for a cultural space that was “not intimidating, accessible, open.”
New York is now keeping him busy: He’s designing a new campus (on Broadway and 125th Street) for Columbia University, and witnessing another “big change,” as the campus is “not closed, not gated: It’s open to the street.”
Despite all the global work, Piano keeps his practice small: He lives and works mainly in Paris, and his offices there, in Genoa and in New York employ no more than 150 people.
What does he do to unwind? “Sailing,” he says with a smile, and then reverts to language that could apply to his architecture. “It’s about freedom, and in some ways it’s about lightness -- the sense of levitation.”
Information: http://londonbridgequarter.com/ and http://www.the-shard.com/ Tickets for the viewing gallery -- which opens on Feb. 1, 2013 -- will go on sale tomorrow, costing 24.95 pounds per adult and 18.95 pounds per child.
(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
To contact the writer on the story: Farah Nayeri in London at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.