Renzo Piano’s Shard Points Finger at London Neighbors

The Shard Tower
The sloping planes of the Shard culminate in crystalline fins at a four-level observatory. At 72 stories, the Shard is now the tallest building in the European Union. Photographer: Michel Denance/Renzo Piano Building Workshop via Bloomberg

The trouble with the European Union’s tallest skyscraper is that it’s too short to soar.

The Shard in London needs neighboring towers so that it doesn’t look like a shiny weed sprouting from the south bank of the River Thames.

For nearly four decades Londoners have debated when, whether and how skyscrapers should pierce the low-rise skyline, presided over by St. Paul’s Cathedral since 1711.

The tower is inaugurated on July 5 after 12 years of permit processes and economic busts. Now its steeply pyramidal form rises 1,016 feet (310 meters) from the London Bridge rail station, and towers over the city. Its exterior is complete and office tenants will soon begin moving in.

The name refers to the tower’s tapering icicle shape, designed by Genoa-based Renzo Piano. It’s paired with a 17-story office building to form a 2.5-million square foot commercial project called London Bridge Quarter developed by Irvine Sellar, of the Sellar Property Group Ltd. It will cost 1.5 billion pounds ($2.4 billion) when completed and be worth 2.5 billion pounds when fully leased, Sellar said.

Although it’s 250 feet shorter than the 80-year-old Empire State Building, it’s the first and the tallest of a new crop of skyscrapers planned or in construction in central London.

Hoping to assuage local skyscraper skeptics, Piano tailored the surface to enliven it on the skyline. I like the way its soaring top popped unexpectedly into view as I navigated the Dickensian twisting streets and heavenly smells of Borough Market on my way to a tour of the building.

Icy Planes

Piano nudged each side into facets to catch the varying light, and carved deep vertical seams that appear to reveal the building’s steel frame. The effect is to make the glass cladding seem ephemeral. The icy planes taper to pincer-like points at the top, visually dissolving the building into the clouds.

The surface modeling gives the tower presence on the skyline, but its proportions, seen full height, are ruinous. It’s too thick at the bottom and looks as if it crushes its brick and stone surroundings -- among the most ancient in London -- rather than soars out of them.

The laborious voyage through London’s planning process resulted in a building 300 feet shorter than initially proposed and with no fewer square feet. Lesson: in skyscrapers, tall and thin is usually better than short and dumpy.

At least it doesn’t intrude on St. Paul’s dominance of the skyline, and may encourage the City to grow across the Thames into Bermondsey. Though Londoners may be horrified by the idea, the Shard could use neighboring towers.

Dotted Skyline

It stands alone because its design began when former mayor Ken Livingstone sensibly wanted large buildings concentrated around rail hubs. That could leave London’s skyline aimlessly dotted with towers rather than massed together where they work better, as in the City.

Piano has described the Shard as a “vertical city” because it stirs together offices, a hotel, apartments, and restaurants. That’s typical of super-tall towers that have risen from Abu Dhabi to Guangzhou, and Piano uses the mix to riposte such sterile office precincts as Canary Wharf.

An outdoor escalator under jazzy overlapping glass canopies theatrically conveys commuters up from the street past two stacked glass-walled lobbies to the train-departure level. The developer agreed to build an elegant, Piano-designed station entrance plaza and glass-roofed station lobby.

Oldest Station

It’s the first phase of a full-scale overhaul of the 1836 station, London’s oldest, by Grimshaw architects.

Floor-to-ceiling glass of unusual transparency brings the light of even London’s dimmest days into office floors that are as big as 40,000 square feet. Instead of the usual acres of opaque reflective glass, the Shard’s cladding reveals the activity within.

Three dining levels in the restaurants wrap a three-story atrium with a cable-suspended stair at the 31st floor, opening vertigo-inducing views. The 18 floors of the five-star Shangri-La hotel enclose only 200 rooms.

Just 10 apartments take up the top 13 floors with some duplex panoramas that range from the great parks and palaces of west London to the eastern docklands set amid the twisting lower reaches of the Thames. The view is 44 miles (71 kilometers), Sellar said. Visitors to four public-viewing levels nestled amid the tower’s glass peaks will sometimes find themselves above the clouds.

The Shard isn’t good enough to quiet the tower haters, but its best moments point the way to tall building design that can gracefully coexist with the city’s invaluable history.

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(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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