Paul Finch’s Letter from London: With the Shard, Irvine Sellar, Renzo Piano and the Qataris have done London proud, says Paul Finch
There has been a deafening silence from Highgrove on the subject of Renzo Piano’s Shard tower at London Bridge, launched in truly bravura fashion last week.
Renzo’s old partner and friend, Richard Rogers, saw his Qatari-backed scheme for Chelsea Barracks torpedoed after the Prince of Wales wrote to his royal emirati pal, suggesting a change of approach was required. It was duly forthcoming. Perhaps one good turn deserves another, or perhaps the PoW has had a conversion to the joys of height. In any event he has chosen not to rain (or indeed reign) on the Shard’s triumphant parade.
This has not stopped other worthies from bemoaning the end of the world as we know it, but their complaints ring a bit hollow, being at least five years too late. Meanwhile the rest of London can marvel at its genuine new icon, a commercial giant that says London is the most important city in the world.
It all seems an age since a tiny press conference to introduce Renzo as the architect of the project, which took place in a dismal room in the mediocre mid-rise tower the Shard was to replace.
The developer, Irvine Sellar, called the conference at short notice via his PR consultant, Baron Phillips, whose first name was an act of imagination on his parents’ part rather than an indication of noble blood. Baron called those of his mates he thought might be prepared to turn up at 24 hours’ notice to – horror of horrors – a press conference taking place on a Saturday morning! Anyway, up we turned, not because of the offer of a free lunch, but because it was an intriguing project, and the opportunity to hear Renzo talking about the project at its outset was too good to miss.
So a handful of us gathered, waiting for Renzo. As soon as he entered the room, he immediately opened the blinds, bringing some refreshing daylight into the room, and started talking about his ideas. It was very engaging, and not much different from his comments on the scheme last week. What we didn’t discuss was the prequel to his appointment. Building Design Partnership and Arup had already designed a tower for which looked interesting. But it was explained to us that if London was to get an office tower of truly international reputation, then an architect with a truly international reputation would be required.
Renzo’s name had been suggested (by whom is not entirely clear). Irvine went to see him in Berlin; the classic lunch and sketch on the napkin took place, and off the project went.
Planning wasn’t exactly easy, partly because Southwark’s own local plan said the site was not suitable for tall buildings. English Heritage was wildly opposed. CABE was supportive of height and architecture, but worried about transport connections. I spent a slightly odd afternoon being bashed up by two QCs when I gave evidence at the public inquiry on CABE’s behalf. First the English Heritage silk attacked CABE and me for supporting the scheme. When he had finished, Irvine’s silk attacked us for not being fully supportive.
After the inquiry, and the inspector’s huge vote of confidence in the scheme, Irvine bought the adjacent office tower, thus allowing the transport connections to be properly resolved.
The replacement sister building, also by Renzo, must be one of the very few where the architect changed his mind about the design after permission had been won, and asked the client to accept an entirely different design. It is to Irvine Sellar’s credit that he agreed. I think he knows what a wonderful job the architect has done – both for him and the Qatari funders.