Europe’s tallest tower is externally complete. Simon Allford, Douglas Murphy and Joe Kerr offer perspectives onf the point of the Shard, while RPBW’s Giles Reid recalls the technical challenge of its construction.
Perspective: Simon Allford
Londoners rarely get excited by architecture. But their latent interest in the physical form of the city is most usually stirred when architecture breaks through the jumbled roofscape and pierces their horizon. It was ever thus; indeed, the collective memory of Wren’s story of spires and the dome of St Paul’s inspired London’s invisible glass ceilings that, in their battle to constrain, dance like fat laser cones from places of supposed repose to distant horizons beyond the city’s landmarks.
The latest marker of London’s economic rise is also the tallest and bulkiest; its tapered form, like its name, was invented to belie its mass. Though not yet finished, the Shard’s intrusion into our horizons ensures that we all feel able to offer opinions long before we have had the chance to work in its offices, sleep in its hotel, visit its sky-garden or, for the privileged few, delight in its penthouses. Regardless of how favourably we view it, the Shard is undeniably important because it demonstrates the world’s confidence in London; because it is a vast ‘city sandwich’ of different uses and leasehold structures bravely stacked upon each other; and because it generously liberates the ground plane.
Despite our fascination with the skyline, it is the Shard’s urbanity that may prove to be its greatest legacy. Soon everyone will understand and enjoy the contribution this huge pile of real estate has made to unlocking the infrastructural mess that was London Bridge station and thus reconnecting the city and facilitating future regeneration and repair.
So what of the architecture? From afar its spire-like profile confidently and elegantly thrusts into most vistas: indeed from Parliament Hill its recently installed finial audaciously perforates Wren’s dome. It is Southwark’s revenge on all those throughout history who have turned their backs on it to gaze at the City. From the middle ground I am less convinced: its dense, layered milky glass appearance ensures that the tripartite programme – which might have aligned with Louis Sullivan’s maxim that the skyscraper requires a base, middle and top – is disappointingly concealed. Perhaps this will change with occupation but I suspect not.
Too big ever to be demolished, and currently much discussed, this building will nevertheless soon recede from vistas and conversation: we will walk by, like Gene Hackman in Enemy of the State, without even looking up. While the Shard will never disappear into the clouds in the sky it will, like its predecessors, disappear into those in our head.
The Shard is also a reminder that with increasing frequency extraordinary things happen to change our perceptions of London’s constituent parts and to recontextualise places and projects. In Southwark’s case, think of the crossing that was London Bridge and the historic export southside of crime and pleasure, the establishment of the docks and the movement of goods, and then the railways and the movement of people. More recently the Jubilee Line has effectively relocated Southwark closer to the West End, challenging its historical reliance on the City. The Shard, even without the recently topped out Baby Shard next door, is another extraordinary project of such a scale that very soon it will have to be reviewed in a changed context very much of its own making.
But for now it is as difficult to separate ideas of what the Shard represents (global finance and architectural and engineering achievement) as it is to distinguish the multiple functions within its single form. I eagerly anticipate it coming to life but until then I can only say with certainty that extraordinary finance has generated a particular form that surprisingly conceals its function.
Simon Allford is a partner at Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, whose current projects include an office tower in Blackfriars
Perspective: Douglas Murphy
It has to be said that there is a lot to admire about the Shard: as a design it has been resolved with consummate skill and panache. Renzo Piano, the architect’s architect, has approached the challenge of accommodating such a mammoth lump of programme with a remarkably subtle touch: from the teasing way that the very point at the top of the building has been left unresolved, to the delicately detached depth of the curtain walling or the slight milky haze of the glass, which causes the building to take on the shifting tones of the sky, one can’t really imagine a more accomplished approach to such a massive building.
Wonderfully designed it may be, but what does the Shard mean? It is a fool who argues that a city should not grow, should remain static, but to look upon the Shard is to see a monumental reminder that most people have no stake in the way London is changing. Take, for example, the apartments that will be contained therein; as a Dickensian housing crisis rages throughout the city, the foreign hyper-rich now have a selection of £30-50m flats in which to sink their money. (Perhaps we should note here its principal funders, the Qatari royal family, which has in recent years been snapping up all manner of projects in developed countries in the hope – some have said – that it will buy them protection in case someone comes violently knocking for their gas). Or maybe we see the Shard as a staked claim for territory south of the river, a further bursting of the boundaries of the City, signifying that speculative office space is the only game in town, hot money the only thing that builds any more.
Besides not interrupting the railway lines beneath, the Shard makes no attempt whatsoever to resolve itself with the urban fabric of its home borough of Southwark. But why should it? The Shard is just the first of many towers to come, and it is a frequently observed phenomenon that once the brilliant architect has built the first gleaming tower, the planners’ door is open to all manner of rubbish. Take SPPARC’s ‘Quill’, an insultingly bad tower which already has permission for a site nearby; we have only a short time before the Shard’s only real quality – its aesthetic elegance – is lost through the construction of yet more dross.
To stand on London Bridge in the ever-increasing rain, with the Shard threatening to dissolve into the grey murk of the sky, one cannot help but notice its resemblance to the archetype of the gothic tower, all secrecy and dolorous gloom. At these times it resembles nothing more than an abstracted, hi-tech reimagining of the tower from the Lord of the Rings, lacking nothing but a flaming eye of evil at its peak to complete the illusion. In the future it might seem strange that despite everything that was going on, in 2012 we were still building these temples to the arcane and opaque world of finance, but time will tell.
Douglas Murphy is an architect and writer, and author of The Architecture of Failure (Zero Books).
Perspective: Joe Kerr
As a historian I should know better than to criticise a new building; very few such judgments pass the test of time, and they are normally only disdainfully quoted for their amusement value years afterwards. Such condemnations are also largely ineffective, as a completed building is a pretty effective fait accompli. But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be written, for works of architecture acquire admirers simply for being there for a length of time, and a first response can be a purer reaction to the qualities of a building than a retrospective judgment. And to defend controversial new structures, while dismissing the views of their opponents merely on the basis of ‘shock of the new’, as has happened in this instance, is to abdicate responsibility for making informed and critical judgments. So here goes.
I loathe the Shard: I hate it as an object, I react to everything that it symbolises, I bitterly regret the baleful impact it will have on London, I recoil from its aggressive and hubristic nickname, and I retch at the pompous, self-justifying claims made on its behalf by its apologists. Indeed, I can’t remember a work of architecture that has generated so much uncritical bilge from its designer, and from the public bodies who approved and endorsed it.
Most guilty of all is the great Renzo Piano himself, an architect that my generation was brought up to idolise. Almost every claim he has made for his towering monolith seems patently absurd; the notion that it’s ‘a sparkling spire flirting with the weather’ is merely a meaningless piece of PR fluff, but it is monstrous to propose that it somehow refocuses attention on London’s ancient origins – what, by crushing them? No, this building is a denial of London and its history. It has no concern for context or place, it’s a piece of Kuwait that is now forever Southwark.
Architecturally it’s a one-trick pony, a lazy massing of a banal form that rockets skywards with no regard for what it has thrust aside; the claim that it does not cast a blighting presence on its immediate surroundings, and that it only projects its shadow on to the Thames, makes no sense if one stands next to it, and the suggestion that it will effectively disappear by mirroring the sky is equally baffling when viewed from a distance.
Over time it’s quite likely that I may soften my opinion, and I’m sure that the next generation of towers that are planned to oppress London will show it in a favourable light merely because of their greater banality, but I will never stop regretting that it was ever imposed on us in the first place.
Joe Kerr is head of programme in critical & historical studies at the Royal College of Art, and a London bus driver.
Perspective: Giles Reid, RPBW
Part of the agreement between the Shard’s developer and Network Rail – landlord of the site – was the creation of a new train station. This had to be complete prior to the Shard opening its doors. One of project’s major construction feats has been to build its new steel and glass roof and deconstruct the existing roof while keeping the station operational throughout.
The existing concourse dated from 1978. It was gloomy and disorientating, affording neither views of the trains nor the sky, and its space-frame roof had suffered from neglect.
Over the years, various rail construction experts were introduced to the project. Each proposed variations of a crash-deck methodology. In other words, the contractor erects a platform, drops the old roof onto it and builds a new roof off it. This deck must be watertight and sufficiently robust for both imposed and accidental loads. Services must be transferred onto its underside. If these are retained in place for longer than six months, they become classed as permanent works, doubling the cost. At London Bridge, the cost and disruption ensuing from this strategy was prohibitive. We faced the prospect of the contractor massively exceeding the temporary works budget and being left with a greatly diminished budget for the roof itself.
We believed that there was a different way to do it. We argued that one could lower new columns through the existing space frame and land new steels atop them. By retaining the existing roof as long as possible, it could be used as a working platform, and we could retain the majority of existing services below until the space frame needed to come out.
The dedicated station delivery team brought in by the contractor, Mace, reached a similar conclusion and went on to build the station against an accelerated programme, ultimately delivering it ahead of schedule.
Working out the detail of this strategy required extensive negotiation with Network Rail and represents a major joint effort between contractor and client team. Mace, and project manager Turner & Townsend, not only had to satisfy Network Rail that it could safely lift the heavy columns and beams over the old roof at night but also, in order to meet the schedule, to work on the glazing over the travelling public during the day.
Renzo Piano Building Workshop, structural engineer WSP and our partner architect for the station, Pascall & Watson, worked closely with specialist roofing contractor Seele. It played a crucial role in the connection engineering, never more so than after Network Rail introduced a significant bomb blast requirement on the facade and roof during tendering. The impact of this requirement on our design held significant fears at the time, but we were ultimately able to enhance the design visually. For example, to account for the increased shear forces, every major steel-to-steel connection had to be changed from bolt-fixed to site-welded. These connections were then filled and ground smooth before being painted. The calm and precise end result hides the complexity of calculation and planning that went into all stages of detailing and execution.
While the rising tower grew in public view, the concourse roof was built with few realising what was going on above until the space frame was deconstructed.
Giles Reid is the London representative of Renzo Piano Building Workshop.
Architect: Renzo Piano Building Workshop, in collaboration with Adamson Associates; design team (planning phase): J Moolhuijzen, N Mecattaf, W Matthews, D Drouin, A Eris, S Fowler, H Lee, J Rousseau, R Stampton, M van der Staay, K Doerr, M Gomes, J Nakagawa, K Rottova, C Shortle, O Aubert, C Colson, Y Kyrkos, B Akkerhuis, G Bannatyne, E Chen, G Reid, O Barthe, J Carter, V Delfaud, M Durand, E Fitzpatrick, S Joly, G Longoni, C Maxwell-Mahon, JB Mothes, M Paré, I Tristrant, J Winrow, O Doule, J Leroy, L Petermann; structural engineer: Arup (up to planning), WSP Cantor Seinuk (post-planning); services engineer: Arup; vertical transportation consultant; Lerch, Bates & Associates; consulting architect (pre-planning): Broadway Malyan; executive architect, station: Pascall & Watson; cost consultant: Davis Langdon; landscape: Townshend Architects; client: Sellar Property Group.
Selected suppliers and subcontractors
Cladding: Scheldebouw; brick: York Handmade; concrete subcontractor: Byrne Brothers; steelwork: Severfield Reeve; blocks: Lignacite; glass: Pilkington Optiwhite; glass coating: Interpane; blind motors: Somfy; blind fabric: Hexcel; steelwork paint: Leigh’s Paints; granite paving: Grant’s; cables: Prysmian; polished plaster: Armourcoat; exterior lighting: iGuzzini; lifts and escalators: Kone.
First published in AT230, July/ August 2012