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The Shard by Renzo Piano Building Workshop

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Stirling Prize 2014: It is an expression of greed, ego, deception and arrogance, as well as being one of the most elegant skyscapers to be built in recent years, writes Edwin Heathcote

The Shard (AJS 08.12) is a paradox. It is a finely wrought and sophisticated tower. Renzo Piano is a craftsman and he is careful with details. He has clearly thought hard about the crown and how to make a less aggressive gesture than the spike, which would have been the natural termination for the tower. Instead its planes never quite come together; they suggest a kind of rise to infinity or a disappearing into the clouds.

It has an extraordinary presence on the skyline. Just as the Gherkin popped up unexpectedly from Hackney to Shoreditch, radically altering the once rather dim city profile, the Shard now appears in every view from the Serpentine to Richmond Hill. It has become a default part of the landscape and not a bad one. Close up it is less good. It doesn’t meet the city well and the way it spreads its aprons over London Bridge Station is surprisingly clumsy, a collision of DIY greenhouses. The apron that seems to protect the citizens from the rain is actually a canopy to stop the huge downdrafts the building attracts.

RPBW_SHARD_0612_13

Then there is the question of the top. This was a building that was marketed as providing a new public space for the city, a viewing gallery at its peak which would give an unparalleled panorama of the City from across the river. But that view comes at a cost: ninety nicker for a family of four. Is that in the spirit of a section 106? ‘The View from the Shard’ is packaged as a touristic ‘experience’. The day I went, a light drizzle blotted out everything beyond about half a mile. In fact, the building is too tall. It becomes almost impossible to engage with the city below as you are elevated too far above it. There is a difference between a public space and a space open to the public, but it is one that seems to have escaped the planners who fall for this kind of stuff. I’d advise Londoners to go to the SushiSamba in the Heron Tower instead, for the price of a drink.

During the planning, Piano compared the Shard to a sail on a boat in a riverscape by Canaletto, and to the spires of Wren’s churches that spiked the 17th‑century skyline. This link to some Italianate Restoration idyll was deeply disingenuous and he gave the game away later in the process when he described how the canted surfaces of the tower were angled so that they would reflect the sky; a constantly changing carapace. There are multiple architectural devices Piano uses to reassert this disappearance, including that fragmented, seemingly incomplete crown.

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Piano was trying to have it both ways, using historical precedent (look at the actual scale of barge sails or even the tallest of Wren’s churches) and then claiming the tower would disappear against the opalescent sky. Well, which one is it? The Shard has certainly not disappeared. Quite the opposite in fact, it has set a precedent for height in a south London skyline that is currently being punctured by an array of ill-considered, third-rate towers. The Shard is an issue.

In some ways, it seems almost impossible not to award it the Stirling Prize; it is a monument that has changed the shape of London and will continue to exert an influence. It is also well-built, finely detailed and one of the most elegant skyscrapers to be built in recent years. It became a part of the London landscape even before it was completed and it seems almost too late for the prize: it feels like it has been there for ever. It is an expression of gentrification, greed, ego, arrogance, ambition, deception and architectural finesse. How could it not win? 

  • Edwin Heathcote is the architecture critic of the Financial Times
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