London’s newest skyscraper is advancing floor by floor into the record books, but critics say The Shard and a rash of other towers under construction are ruining the capital’s historic skyline.
When it is finished in 2012, The Shard, a glistening triangle by world-renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano, will stand 310 metres high, becoming the highest tower in Europe.
Already the view from the 72nd floor – there are 15 more above it – is enough to bring on a serious bout of vertigo.
The tower dominates London’s skyline, dwarfing historic buildings like St Paul’s Cathedral and the Houses of Parliament, and is gaining height alongside about half a dozen other skyscrapers shooting up across the city.
Among these is the slightly curved top-heavy block nicknamed Walkie Talkie; The Cheese Grater, which is upright on one side and sloped on the other; and The Pinnacle, also dubbed The Helter-Skelter because of its spiral shape.
Peter Rees, the man in charge of planning in the City of London financial district for the past 25 years, is enthusiastic about the new buildings and cites the quirky names as proof of public support.
“It indicates that the public have noticed something which is distinctive, which needs to be given a personal name, a friendly name in a way that they wouldn’t if it was an anonymous building or something they disliked,” he said.
The trend for towering office blocks – and nicknames – began in 2003 with the Swiss Re building, universally known as The Gherkin despite the insurance firm’s efforts to use its address as its official name, 30 St Mary Axe.
Unlike in Paris, another capital full of historic buildings where the skyscrapers have been neatly arranged into certain districts, the London towers appear to have popped up all over the place like mushrooms.
In reality the buildings often take years to be approved – The Shard, a futuristic structure with huge splinters of glass pointing to the sky, took 12 years to come to fruition.
Concerns about the building prompted the former Labour government to hold a lengthy public inquiry before deciding in favour.
One of The Shard’s strongest critics is English Heritage, the national body responsible for protecting historic places. It says the tower has ruined a protected view of St Paul’s Cathedral, one of Britain’s most iconic monuments.
The Shard “is a marvellous building, but it’s in the wrong place”, said the organisation’s regional director, Paddy Pugh.
Although there is no maximum height for buildings in London, the authorities protect views of historic buildings from the river and surrounding hills. This includes panoramas of St Paul’s, the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace from locations such as Parliament Hill in north London, one of the best places to survey the city.
From Parliament Hill, The Shard appears to stand right behind St Paul’s and absorbs its stately curves into its bulk, even if in reality the skyscraper is located several hundred metres away on the other side of the River Thames.
To those who cry sacrilege, Rees points out that Christopher Wren’s domed design for St Paul’s, which was the tallest building in London from its construction in 1710 until 1964, was itself hugely controversial.
“When it was constructed, London was used to gothic cathedrals with tall spires and to have this new continental invention of the dome appearing in London divided people,” he said.
Mr Rees added: “I think urban areas need that sort of visual stimulation.”
For the opponents of London’s new skyline, there is some consolation, as the new mayor of London Boris Johnson has tightened the restrictions to protect the city’s historic views in the future.
But there is no getting away from The Shard, which grows taller by the day.