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Beautiful Buildings: The Shard

A beacon of regeneration, change and the 21st century.
A beacon of regeneration

In recent years London has been lacking the regenerative poise and energy that can be seen in every other global city across the world, as well as a statement of what it is and what it wishes to become. The Shard is the embodiment of change in London.

Upon visiting The Shard you are met with an 800ft ascent. After the lift has delivered you to the 68th floor you have to climb another four floors to reach the highest viewing platform. The Shard is an impressive 95 stories tall, yet it only took 72 stories to take my breath away. The stunning view over London is unrivalled, which is no surprise given that The Shard is the fourth tallest building in Europe. It offers a superb 360 degree view of London including the Thames, Canary Wharf and Tower Bridge. It’s clear why just shy of a million tourists flock here every year.

Tower Bridge from the 72nd floor of The Shard.
Tower Bridge from the 72nd floor of The Shard.

Plans for a new skyscraper in London had been brewing since the turn of the century; with little inspiring architecture around, London needed a lift. London-based entrepreneur Irvine Sellar was tasked with redeveloping the Southwark area of London and a statement tower was one of his fundamental demands. He flew out to his preferred architect in Berlin, Italian Renzo Piano, for lunch. During the meal Sellar sketched out a large spire-like building growing from the River Thames on the back of the menu, and The Shard was born.

After various upheavals, planning was secured six years later. Funding was delivered by a consortium of Qatari investors. In 2009, The Southwark Office Tower was demolished to make way for its much taller counterpart, The Shard.

Inspired by Italian painter Canaletto and his depiction of the 18th Century London skyline, architect Renzo Piano began designing the spire. Intriguingly, the naming of The Shard only came to fruition after heavy criticism from English Heritage, who stated that the building would be “a shard of glass through the heart of historic London”.

The internal structure of The Shard's spire, looking up from the 72nd floor.
The internal structure of The Shard’s spire, looking up from the 72nd floor.

The building features 11,000 panes of glass, with a total surface area of 56,000 square metres, which encapsulated modern design. Piano also used glass to create a mirror to the building’s surroundings. The building would reflect the seasons; sunlight would dance off the panes in summer and rain would glaze the surface and give it a stunning shimmer in spring, autumn and winter. The building’s impact is much more subtle than one would immediately think.

After winning the Olympic Bid in 2005, the creation of The Shard was immediately fast-tracked to be in time for the millions of worldwide viewers watching one of the biggest shows on earth. Late, The Shard’s spire was affixed on 30 March 2012, yet the building still magnificently enhanced the skyline and added to a very successful 2012 Olympics. Undeniably, The Shard has carried London towards further regeneration and prosperity.

Piano has created a building that manages to compliment its surroundings, not tear them apart. It was always going to be a challenge to create a modern skyscraper in one of the most historic global cities on earth – perhaps this is why it has taken so long for London to add to its skyline in such drastic way. Someone just needed to be brave, linking history with the 21st Century.

If this is what brave architecture looks like, we need more architects willing to take a risk.