LONDON — Look up. Waaaay up. Well, not quite that far. This isn’t New York, after all. The Shard, England’s newest and tallest skyscraper stands alone on the south bank of the Thames here, between the government lawyers and CEOs to the north and Canary Wharf bankers to the east. Immediately next door lies the two-story London Bridge station.
The building, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano is a pyramid with sides that don’t meet at the top, a shape inspired by London’s many church spires and the masts of the ships that used to crowd the Thames. On a bright day (ahem), the glass skin reflects the sky. When the fog descends, the Shard looks rather like a modern beanstalk jutting up from the riverbank on its way to lands mysterious.
At 1,016 feet, the Shard is considerably taller (245 feet) than London’s next highest building, (One Canada Square in Canary Wharf, 771 feet), but in the global skyscraper stakes, its ranking is a modest 59. The U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles has it pipped by 2 feet, the Empire State Building stretches 393 feet further and the Taipei 101 building in Taiwan an extra 216 feet. The undisputed king, however, is the whopping Burj Khalifa in Dubai, clocking in at 2,717 feet.
For hundreds of years, the battle for the tallest building in London was fought between cathedrals. St. Paul’s reigned from 1310-1666, then it burned down and the superlative went to Southwark Cathedral just a few hundred yards downriver where the Shard is now. Then St. Paul’s reappeared on the scene in 1710 and held the title until British Telecom built a tower in Fitzrovia in 1962.
Strict building codes restricting building height to preserve views of St. Paul’s, the Houses of Parliament and the Tower of London were relaxed in the 1960s and over the next 40 years clusters of tall buildings sprouted up in the city and Canary Wharf.
The area around the Shard has benefited from hundreds of thousands of pounds in investment in recent years. The sidewalks are nicer, but aside from the lively Borough Market and the Clink prison museum, the main reason people come to London Bridge is to change trains.
Big buildings require big money and these days, the place to find that is the Middle East. Someone involved in the Shard project told the Financial Times, “It is all about owning a chunky trophy asset in one of the world’s big global cities and London is seen as the safest place to put large amounts of cash – it is very stable politically.”
When the world markets started crashing in 2007, it looked like the Shard would be canceled. Handily, a consortium of Qatari investors fronted the cash in exchange for an 80% stake in the building.
At the moment, the Shard has just one tenant (the Shangri-La hotel), but the developers have taken a build-it-and-they-will-come leap and hope that the luxury apartments, restaurants, winter gardens, hotel and two dozen floors of offices will attract enough people to make London Bridge the new hot spot in town.
Failing that, the viewing platforms on floors 69 and 72 as part of The View From The Shard will open in February and draw tourists happy to part with $40 for a chance to see London, the sea and the airports they arrived in. As long as it doesn’t rain.
First published in the Los Angeles Times.