Recently, London’s renowned Shard opened to much fanfare and applause; standing by other landmarks such as Tower Bridge and the much loved Borough Market. At over 1,016ft, including some 11,000 glass panels covering the equivalent of eight football pitches, it is actually not yet complete: work on its 1,367,784ft² interior space is set to continue until 2013.
Its significance, however, goes beyond engineering genius: as Europe’s tallest building, the Shard was built through some of the most stringent economic times in recent history. Irvine Sellar, the building’s developer, had to jump through various hoops, including a planning enquiry under John Prescott and finding new investors during the 2008 crash, before the building could start.
…the Shard is vaster than anything before…
Despite this, the ever-reliable Guardian commentariat seem universally opposed to the Shard’s existence. Cynical remarks link the Shard to such notions as Marx’s Theory of Alienation and the Tower of Babel, while others bemoan its Qatari backers and the sudden appearance of wealth in a comparatively poor area. Simon Jenkins goes further, condemning its temerity to stand out against London’s skyline. The Shard is, he implies, an act of iconoclasm to rival the Taliban’s wrecking of ancient Afghan Buddha statues: Irvine Sellar and architect, Renzo Piano, far from deserving admiration for sticking to their vision through years of economic and technical challenges, are egomaniacs. Jenkins’s criticism, however, overlooks a key point.
I, myself, profess no great architectural knowledge, but London’s mongrel nature in this field is self-evident. The city sports everything from Georgian townhouses and Brutalist concrete monsters, to name but two ubiquitous styles. To be sure, the Shard is vaster than anything before – but London’s environment is defined by such variety. So why, then, was this suddenly an issue? Negative aesthetic expectations over our first real skyscraper were doubtless part of the explanation, but only part.
…a monument to our ability to create and to endure…
Instead, what might bluntly be called the politics of envy clearly played the major role. As Aditya Chakrabortty wrote, after all, the Shard “is the tower of the 1%”. Put simply, the Shard rests on the vaunted bugbear of big money; ergo it must be condemned. But that knee-jerk reaction blinds these commentators to the fact that the Shard is something truly worth celebrating. It is, in short, a monument to our ability to create and to endure – something clearly in demand in times like these.
Ultimately, the Shard’s story bears a certain similarity to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead: her tale of a young architect who follows his own vision despite years of hardship. Ultimately, the hero triumphs, with the end seeing him build New York’s tallest skyscraper and fulfilling his dreams. Likewise in the real world, amidst an unending fiscal nightmare, Sellar, Piano and their compatriots have created a rare triumph to celebrate. For that, they deserve far better than the slurs of Guardian commentators.