“It’s the best view in the world,” promises Anders Nyberg, as we stand at the foot of the Shard, London’s newest landmark and, at 310m, the tallest building in western Europe. As chief executive of The View from the Shard – the building’s top-floor viewing gallery – he is hardly impartial, but what he lacks in objectivity, he makes up for in experience, having run the viewing galleries at Chicago’s Willis Tower and Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. “In Dubai, you have the Gulf on one side, the desert on the other – just the two aspects. In Chicago, there’s the lake, but not much out west. Here there’s such depth and richness.”
Along with a group of other journalists, I am being given a preview ahead of the gallery’s opening on February 1. As we assemble in the lobby there is excited chatter about the spectacle waiting up top. On a clear day, says a PR officer, you can see 40 miles: to the sea at Southend in one direction, or Windsor Castle in the other.
My anticipation has been building since long before this morning – for months and years, in fact, as I’ve watched the glass tower push up out of the crowded, ancient streets until it became visible from what seems like every point in, and around, the city. Long familiar prospects – from Hampstead Heath, Richmond Park, even the lanes of Surrey – have been changed by this attention-seeking new arrival; so what must the view from the top be like?
Before they get to see it, visitors will pass through a multimedia exhibition on the ground floor. This is still under construction but will, we’re told, have screens showing scenes of city life, famous London quotes and some bizarre-sounding animations of celebrated residents: Dickens and Shakespeare rowing on the Thames together, Karl Marx and Margaret Thatcher on a tandem, Boris Johnson shining Ken Livingstone’s shoes. Then come the lifts, the first rising to the 33rd floor, the second from there to level 68, each taking 30 seconds. Both feature what must be the world’s most exclusive lift music, a specially composed “uplifting” score performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.
“On a clear day, you can see the whole of London,” says the PR as the lift rises and my ears pop. The doors open and we hurry up the final flight of steps leading to the 69th floor – and the view.
It is not a clear day. Clouds swirl around the glass walls. Windsor Castle is nowhere to be seen; we can just about make out Elephant and Castle, an ugly roundabout less than a mile away.
Perhaps bad weather on the day of the big media reveal is just Sod’s law; perhaps it is the attraction’s Achilles heel. The PR insists there are, on average, just six days a year when low cloud will obscure the view completely, but three of those seem to have been in the past week. On such occasions visitors will not be offered refunds of their £25-a-head tickets (bookable up to four months in advance). Instead, they will have to make do with the 12 “tell:scopes” – computerised telescopes with interactive screens that can display the perfect blue-sky view even at night. The telescopes also let visitors zoom in on particular buildings, then bring up potted histories on screen.
The main viewing gallery has a triple-height ceiling and extends right around the building. Upstairs, on level 72, 244m above the ground, is another (yet-to-be completed) gallery, which will be open to the elements at its four corners. This is the Shard’s highest habitable floor, but remains a long way below the actual summit. Above it are six “service” floors, then the equivalent of 17 further floors, which will remain empty.
Tickets will be timed (and limited to 200 every 30 minutes) but guests can stay as long as they like. Nyberg expects the average visit to last an hour, but I think he may have miscalculated.
For even on this grimy autumn day, with a tiny fraction of the potential view on display, it remains an astounding sight. The height gives new perspective, geographical and historical. It’s clear, for example, how the roads radiate from the city’s ancient nodes – London Bridge, the Tower, St Paul’s, Westminster and so on. There is Portland Stone beside Victorian brick, beside sinuous computer-designed swaths of glass and steel.
The Globe, a pub in Borough, catches my eye. In the 140 years since it opened, it has been almost subsumed by the incoming tide of modern life. Today, from this vantage point, only the pointed roof remains visible, an island surrounded on all sides by a tangle of railway viaducts, old and new.
There’s activity too – Tower Bridge opening to allow a tall-masted sailing barge through; a plane passing at eye level; abseiling window-cleaners many floors below. If I hadn’t been ushered out by one of the builders, I could have stayed all day.