Does size matter?

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The Shard I (Photo M. Germana)

The latest addition to London’s skyline, The Shard, officially opened a few weeks ago. The launch involved a laser display, which, I was lucky enough to watch from the comfortable surroundings of a rooftop terrace near St. Paul’s Cathedral. I was in the company of some Chinese visitors who kindly threw an impromptu party to watch the christening of the new iconic building from the vantage point of their roof terrace.

The thing about The Shard is its size. At 309.6m in height, it is by far the tallest building in London, dwarfing the previous record-holder, Canary Wharf, by about 75m. As Richard Godwin observed in The Evening Standard, The Shard may be the stuff of science fiction:

You have to turn to fiction to convey its true majesty, and George Orwell’s description of the Ministry of Truth from 1984 does the job better than any marketing bumf. The building is “an enormous pyramidal structure …soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air”. Admittedly, The Shard does not have slogans such as “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” and “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY” written on its gleaming carapace. However, at 309 metres, it is almost exactly the same height. It too is visible from almost everywhere in the city.

London Tallest Buildings

The new addition to the capital’s cityscape is in fact the tallest building in Europe. Impressed? Think again: when you take a less Eurocentric look at the world’s tallest buildings, our new glass tower is only the 59th tallest building in the world, almost one third shorter than the tallest, the Burj Khalifa, which stands 828 metres high in the heart of Dubai.

The Shard and the others

Contemporary urban design is still obsessed by the same ambition that drove medieval engineers and architects to defy the limits of their human world and elevate their churches as high as possible. In an act of worship that revealed also the desire to play god, the imposing designs of Gothic churches would force any worshipper to reflect on their smallness, not only in relation to the Almighty, but also, perhaps, in relation to the architect and, most importantly, the Church who funded the project.

St. Paul’s Dome (Photo M. Germana)

In the 21st Century it is banks that acquire the most majestic structures and the symbolism in relation to the power that capitalism holds over our lives doesn’t really need further analysis.

Still, I’m not convinced that size is the be all and end all of contemporary urban architecture. There is certainly something spectacularly breath-taking about height and perhaps nobody summarised this better than the eighteenth-century philosopher Edmund Burke, who drew attention to the strange influence of pain, fear and even horror on our ability to experience pleasure:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.

In the arts the sublime is frequently associated with dramatic scenery, Alpine peaks, glaciers, waterfalls. But the concept transfers well to the man-made heights of modern cityscapes. Indeed Burke focuses on the complexity of the human mind, which is moved much more strongly by an object designed to raise pain and pleasure simultaneously:

It seems, then, necessary towards moving the passions of people advanced in life to any considerable degree, that the objects designed for that purpose, besides their being in some measure new, should be capable of exciting pain or pleasure from other causes.

Perhaps we like big buildings because they remind us that, despite our relative smallness in relation to the universe’s infinity, we are able to defy our own limits and reach, higher and higher. Or perhaps it is not about size after all. Maybe we enjoy being surprised, or shocked even, by a design that challenges our expectations of what a building should look like.

What I particularly like about the City of London is the seamless continuity that characterises its architecture. More so than in other European cities, avant-garde designs rub shoulders with some of the oldest buildings in London. The proximity of the church of St. Andrew Undershaft to 30 St Mary Axe (aka ‘The Gherkin’) is a classic example.

The Gherkin and St Andrew Undershaft (Photo M. Germana)

Interestingly, the name of the church makes a reference to its diminutive size compared to a may pole structure that would have towered over it:

Like many of the City’s churches, there is the business of the strange name. The shaft that the church was under was, in medieval times, an adjacent may pole, which by all accounts was huge, possibly taller than the church tower.

(Mike Paterson, London Historians’ Blog)

Maybe size does matter after all. I remember a witty anecdote from the guide who led my very first ‘Duck Tour‘ through London a few years ago. Apparently,

Sir Norman Foster had his first inspiration for his Bishopsgate tower whilst in the bath.

Fnar fnar.  Though considerably smaller than Sir Foster’s jewel, this small church has withstood  more than any recent piece of architecture in the City; Like St. Paul’s, it remained standing after the Blitz (1940-41). But unlike the Cathedral, St. Andrew Undershaft predates the Great Fire of London (1666) and, more recently, suffered an IRA bomb attack (1992).

Do you like The Shard?

Do you have another favourite building in London? Europe? The rest of the world?

Post any comments and links to images below!

Th Shard II (Photo M. Germana)

Away from it all: my journey back to Shetland

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Tammy Norie (Photo M. Germana)

In May, when the weather started to turn unseasonally cold,  I took the opportunity to return to Shetland, nine years since my first visit to the far north of Britain. It gave me an opportunity to catch up with my friend Bruce, who, on my first visit to Shetland, let me stay at his place when the youth hostel was booked out: it was the beginning of a long-distance friendship and a beautiful way to find out more about Shetland. Like other Shetlanders, Bruce has many a story to tell about this enchanting place.

Fewer and fewer British tourists choose to spend their vacation in Britain and fewer still will choose Shetland as their preferred holiday destination. Access to package holidays promising two weeks in the sun are, frankly, too tempting for most of the heat-starved bodies living in the British isles. Still, if you can bear to pack your waterproofs and thermals instead of flipflops and bikinis, Shetland may offer the kind of cleansing retreat for anybody who overuses the word ‘busy’ in relation to their diaries, social engagements and family lives. If the idea of de-cluttering your mind appeals to you, then the open scenery of Shetland, scattered with sheep, ponies, and the occasional puffin may just cut it.

Traffic Lights (Photo M. Germana)

It was sunny, if a little chilly, when we landed at Sumburgh Airport, one of the easiest airports you will ever fly to. It is also perhaps the only one where, on your way back, you will drive across the runway to catch your plane: a special traffic-light system will flash a red light if a plane is about to take off or land and a dedicated patrol car keeps an eye out for stray ponies or lambs from the adjacent fields.

As for my packing, I must admit, it was a rushed affair and I forgot to accommodate for the unpredictability of Scottish weather;  Shetland is in a different league and on my first day I headed for the chemist’s to buy a pair of sunglasses, which, my pessimistic self had left at home. I also, to be fair, visited The Spider’s Web, one of a cluster of shops in Lerwick specialising in local knitwear, to purchase a pair of woolly gloves (this time, the optimistic side of me had not thought about packing them!): even on sunny days you will need to negotiate your outdoors activities with the persistent breeze that Shetland is famous for.

Shetland ponies (Photo M. Germana)

Perhaps this is why the topography of Lerwick is sliced by narrow lanes connecting Commercial Street, aka ‘da street’, to the sea-front, whose buildings shelter the main shopping street from the strong winds coming from the sea. Walking through these quaint passageways you will also discover some of Lerwick’s pleasant refreshment spots: The Peerie Shop offers freshly-baked cakes and coffees, though you may want to head futher up the hill, towards Charlotte Fort, to the Havly Cafe, for the nicest espresso in town… and Shetland, probably: imported coffee machines become less frequent the further north you travel. If you are after a more substantial meal, then, Monty’s Bistro is a good bet: you can generally rely on the freshness of fish and lamb.

Waterproof lambs

Frankly, however, I find it hard to believe that people could go for the latter, particularly this time of the year, when newborn lambs roam around the fields outside Lerwick. This spring was – surprise, surprise –  a cold one in Shetland, and farmers have tried hard to protect their new flock. Some of them even went as far as supplying them with – I kid you not – waterproof gear. We also noticed that sheep have a particular way of turning their ‘bottoms’ to the wind, as that makes it easier to keep grazing on in spite of the elements. Apparently, we were told by a friendly waitress in Unst, Shetland road-workers use a similar strategy and that may well explain the lack of straight roads in Shetland!

Cute animals aren’t the only reason for visiting Shetland, though if you are a twitcher, this would definitely be an unmissable destination – puffins, guillemots, gannets are all on the menu, so to speak, particularly if you head for Sumburgh Head, Noss or Hermaness, in Unst.

Standing Stone, Unst (Photo M. Germana)

Archeological ruins, both from Shetland’s neolithic past and more recent times, are a reminder that, in spite of their remote location and challenging climate, these islands always had an interesting history, placed as they are halfway between Norway and Scotland: the archipelago was a Norwegian territory up until 1468, when Christian I of Norway pledged Shetland as a dowry for his daughter Margaret, who was given in marriage to James III of Scotland; technically, Norway may still ‘buy’ Shetland back, and, judging by the number of Norwegian flags on display in Lerwick, one wonders whether Shetlanders would mind a change of hands.

Evidence of Shetland’s rich historic – and pre-historic past – is written all over its landscape, in the form of lone standing stones, crofters’ houses, ruined churches and some of the best preserved archeological sites in Britain.

Mousa Brooch (Photo M. Germana)

One of the most iconic examples is the ancient broch of Mousa, perhaps the best preserved of all prehistoric fortifications in Britain and Europe, and a place evocative of the Norse/Scots hybrid traditions that make up Shetland’s cultural heritage. Anybody interested in archeology should also pay a visit to the Jarslhof complex, south west of Lerwick: apparently, it was none other than Sir Walter Scott who gave the site its name, which means ‘the Earl’s House’, as he referred to it in The Pirate (1821). Not far from these spots is one of Shetland’s most idyllic spots: the St. Ninian’s Isle Tombolo, also the site of a famous archeological finding: to catch a glimpse of the treasure of St. Ninian you will need to head back to the mainland to the National Museum of Scotland.

St. Ninian’s Isle (Photo M. Germana)

If the weather turns wet, and chances are it will, visitors may want to spend some time learning about Shetland’s rich past in the cosy environment of the Shetland Museum and Archive, back in Lerwick, a great source of information about Shetland’s geology, archeological and historical past, and folklore.

Haunted Windhouse, Yell (Photo M. Germana)

I was particularly interested in learning about some of the islands’ popular superstitions, such as the ‘trows‘, a Shetland version of the Scandinavian trolls, and yet another reminder of the archipelago’s borderline position between Britain and Norway. Later on, whilst travelling up North, we visited the most haunted house in Shetland, the Windhouse in Yell, where, apparently, a brave shipwrecked sailor succeeded in killing a giant trow. With so much coastline – you are never more than 5km away from the sea – it’s not hard to ‘see’ how the supernatural would have played an important part in the popular culture shaped by the tidal, windswept, moody scenery of Shetland.

‘Tides’ (Photo M. Germana)

Indeed, that’s perhaps the quality that appealed to me the most about this part of the world: the landscape is remote, desolate, haunted, sublime. It may rain a lot, but it’s never boring; in fact, it will hardly ever fail to catch you by surprise. From the darkest winters to the famous ‘simmer dim’, Shetland produces a great palette for the camera. In the heart of winter, on the last Tuesday of January, the absence of light is replaced by the Viking spectacle of burning fire during the Up Helly Aa festival, which, one day, I hope to be able to see.

Rainbow in Hermaness (Photo M. Germana)

There is a sense, too, of being at the end of the world. This is not so much to do with the touristy reminders that you may be staying – as we did! – in Britain’s northernmost hotel (Baltasound Hotel), where you can have a nightcap in the adjoining hostelry known as – you’ve guessed it – Britain’s northernmost bar (Springer’s Bar), or send a postcard home from the most northerly post office in the country. The people are friendly, willing to share their problems – only one engineer to serve two islands (Yell and Unst)! – and their quirky stories; if you ever make it as far as Unst, you will not miss driving past Bobby’s Bus shelter. According to local lore  – and the website that was set up in 1998 to support the increasing popularity of this ‘attraction’ – the bus shelter was the result of a petition written by Bobby, then a school-boy, to replace the bus shelter that had been demolished because it was unsafe. Anybody who has been to Shetland will appreciate the importance of a shelter from the constant wind that sweeps the islands. When the new shelter arrived, as if by magic, new things started to arrive, too:

A few days after the completion of the replacement shelter, a wicker sofa and table appeared in it with nobody claiming responsibility for putting them in. Soon afterwards, a small TV was added, closely followed by a ‘hot snacks’ counter. In the winter, a 2-bar heater was installed, allowing an even more comfortable wait and it wasn’t long before a carpet was fitted. By this time, The Bus Shelter (now capitals) had gained some publicity in and around Shetland. The visitors book was filling up and the comments indicated the demand for a website dedicated to the Unst Bus Shelter. (The Unst Bush Shelter Website)

Bobby’s Shelter (Photo M. Germana)

This year, the theme is regal: it would appear that Jubilee furore has reached far and wide! Bobby’s story is a tribute to the imagination and the community spirit, both of which seem to thrive in spite of, or perhaps because of the harsh conditions this part of the world is frequently exposed to.

‘Scalloway Castle’ (Photo M. Germana)

The spirit of a place cannot but be affected by the nature of its territory, its climate, the quality of light, and the terrifying beauty of treacherous shorelines haunted by the ghostly memories of many a shipwreck. Shetland’s strange appeal derives from the ‘highs’ induced by the freshest air you will inhale whilst watching westward at the sunset from the Eshaness Lighthouse viewpoint and the awareness that there is nothing but the rage of the roaring ocean till the next bit of land, America. As our journey started from one of the most densely populated areas of Western Europe, the vast openness of Shetland felt like the best detoxing strategy we could hope for. Perhaps the best way to appreciate this is to climb Shetland’s highest ‘marilyn‘ – as opposed to a munro! – Ronas Hill (North Mainland): after a deceptively challenging hike, on a clear day, you will feel like the whole world lies below you.

Finally, if quality accommodation is what you are after, then one of the most attrractive places to stay in Shetland, and a great base to explore the western parts of the mainland, is Busta House, a quaintly old-fashioned private hotel, where the Queen stayed on her visit to Shetland in 1960. Her Majesty, we were told, had tea in the elegant ‘long room’; we preferred the cosy bar, and the 200 kinds of whisky it offered to the novice drinkers like us! If gourmet food is what you are craving, head instead for the restaurant attached to unassuming Scalloway Hotel, not far from the beautiful castle that overlooks the bay of Shetland’s former capital.

‘Shopping Centre’, Yell (Photo M. Germana)

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