The building dividing London

FOR: Peter Murray

I love the Shard for the same reason that other people hate it – I can see it from all over London. It pops up in views from Richmond Park and Canary Wharf, from high-up Highgate and lowly Peckham. And I am not alone. The Shard is already a very popular building. Colleagues who commute on trains that arrive each morning into London Bridge report that throughout its construction the conversation in the carriages has been universally favourable, with none of the “monstrous carbuncle” comments that greet many a new arrival to the capital’s streets.

It generates wonderful surprises in the cityscape. London has few axial vistas, its random layout rarely creates the symmetry beloved of city planners such as Paris’s Haussmann; so it is a thrill to find that by chance the Shard emerges dead centre of the view down historic Rotten Row in Hyde Park. And as I cycle over Sawyer’s Hill on Richmond Park on a clear Sunday morning I see the Shard standing imperiously to the south of the City of London’s cluster of towers, as though cocking a snook at its neighbour, who for 800 years has been richer and more powerful. The Shard unashamedly symbolises the regeneration of the borough of Southwark and provides the substitute spire which its cathedral sadly lacks.

It is also, quite simply, one of the most beautiful tall buildings in the world. We have become so used to lumpen orthogonal blocks or contorted icons that the triangular simplicity of the Shard is boldly refreshing – the work of one of the greatest architects of our time. Renzo Piano brings to the art of big building a sensitivity and an eye for proportion that are markedly absent in many of the designers of towers that crowd the skylines of cities around the world.

There are those who criticise it for being a building that represents an era of development that disappeared with the credit crunch, marking the end of a decade of boisterous icons that represent a best-forgotten period of extended credit, overspending and incompetent banking. That is an unfair critique. It is the lot of large developments to be completed in a different part of the economic cycle to the one in which they were conceived.

As I cycle around London, the Shard gives me my bearings. The River Thames turns through more than 90 degrees as it runs from Battersea to Southwark, yet our perception is generally that it is straight. My route from Westminster to Southwark is now shorter and safer as I cut across the South Bank peninsular guided by the Shard as my lodestar. Passengers in taxis can be assured they are being taken on the most direct route as the gleaming glass needle points the way.

Finally, I love the story of Irvine Sellar, the former Carnaby Street boutique owner who commissioned Piano to design the Shard and, in the face of the ill-disguised disdain of the property development world, has pulled off an amazing coup to complete the building that in 2012 will be the symbol of contemporary London.

Irvine’s journey from schmutter to Shard is a very London story.

Peter Murray is chairman of NLA: London’s Centre for the Built Environment, 26 Store Street, WC1,

AGAINST: Simon Jenkins

The Shard is the biggest intrusion on London’s skyline since St Paul’s Cathedral. It was conceived by a property developer, Irvine Sellar, financed by Qatari money and designed by an Italian architect, Renzo Piano. It was flatly opposed by local people, planners and conservation bodies, until winning the support in 2002 of the then London mayor, Ken Livingstone.

The Shard symbolised London at the turn of the 21st century. It served no public, civic or social function. It defied all planning convention, forming no part of a parade or cluster of towers. It thus descended as if from outer space; at over 1,000 feet and 87 storeys it was seen by its supporters largely as a political gesture of financial might.

Designed in what might be called the international anonymous style, the Shard is similar to designs familiar in the Gulf where computers squeeze glass rectangles into tubes, oblongs, gherkins, cheesegraters, mobile phones, anything to add some “identity”. Its distinction is that it narrows to a slit point at the top. This gives it, seen from a distance, a mildly ethereal quality, like the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, yet with the overpowering presence of Stalin’s confections in Moscow.

The Shard is about ostentatious size. It towers over every view in London, from Blackheath to Hampstead. A building so large is unavoidable. Its absence, to those who like it, would not be a disaster, but its presence to those who do not is a perpetual offence.

On these terms the only defence of the Shard is that any product of an unregulated free market must be of benefit to a city, and any attempt to curb it bad. This has to be crass. Even the most philistine free-marketeer would probably oppose heliports in Hyde Park. For most of London’s history, governments concerned themselves not just with the health and efficiency of the city but with its appearance.

The London that grew into one of the greatest world cities in the early 20th century had a specific character. This was the London that planners sought to maintain with zoning and plot ratios before and after the second world war, protecting historic buildings and views. Tall buildings were not permitted near the parks and advertising was restricted. The dignity of the public realm was overseen by the old London County Council.

Yet insistent pressure from developers and central government has eroded London’s physical macro-planning to the point of extinction. New “shards” are now being planned and built along the south bank of the Thames from Bermondsey to Vauxhall; others will tower over Waterloo, Victoria and Euston stations.

London’s towers are not “London”. They take their cue from New York, Dubai and Qatar. They have blotched the townscape in a manner inconceivable in the centres of Rome, Paris, Amsterdam or Madrid. It is a reflection on modern British government that it could no more regulate London’s environment than it could regulate its principal industry, banking. The difference is that the impact of the environmental failure will last forever.

Sir Simon Jenkins is chairman of the National Trust

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