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.
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.
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.
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.
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!