(image: Luke Hayes)
London’s newest attraction – the 244m-high viewing platform of Renzo Piano’s Shard, western Europe’s tallest building – opened to the public in February. Is it worth climbing up this very tall building just to look back down to where you came from? And are buildings like these more about the view than the architecture?
On 1 February, a small part of the Shard, Renzo Piano’s skyscraper at London Bridge finally opened. The five-star hotel and the three restaurants will open later this year, all of the office space is unlet and the ten apartments haven’t yet been put on the market, but if you pay £24.95 (£18.95 for children) to go up to the viewing galleries on the 69th and 72nd floors, you can now experience London’s newest visitor attraction: The View from the Shard.
There’s an awkwardness about the name. It’s common (or it has been since notions of the picturesque took hold towards the end of the 18th century) to talk about visiting a place for the sake of the view; less so to visit the view itself. But, for now, and while the rest of the Shard remains unoccupied, the name is fitting: there isn't anything else to see – and Londoners have become used to seeing the Shard at every turn.
When I visited last month, this lack of anything else was a disappointment. Given the excitably worded press release, I was expecting (perhaps hoping for) a chamber of horrors more in keeping with what you might see at the London Dungeon – "3 exciting rides! 1,000 years of London’s history!" – just a minute’s walk away. This wasn’t an unreasonable expectation, given the first real use of the building last autumn involved a portly British prince abseiling from the 87th to the 20th floor (a distance of 239m) accompanied by other dignitaries who normally engage with new buildings by cutting ribbons at opening ceremonies rather than hanging off their sides.
But the Shard’s promised tableaux of "140 famous Londoners in playful juxtapositions" turns out to be a series of panels, in the style of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python cartoons. They’re knock-offs of knock-offs of Dalí: collages of scenes such as Virginia Woolf sitting on some steps with Oscar Wilde, while Kate Moss stands ready to be married off to Henry VIII. You’ll glance at them while you're waiting to pass through the security check, which is where they're placed, but they aren't meant to be looked at for long. Then it’s past the gift shop and round a dark corridor to the two lifts that take you up to the viewing platform – first from the ground floor to level 33, then on to level 68 – and keep you apart from the rest of the building, each section of which will be accessed by a lift of its own.
The viewing galleries and connecting stairwells lined in striking red hardwood are one of the few parts of the interior for which the Renzo Piano Building Workshop has been solely responsible. Although the architect’s name is mentioned as often as possible in public – when it comes to the Shard’s exterior and its role as an iconic building in the skyline – the hotel and restaurant clients have other needs and specifications.
William Matthews, the project architect, says: “I was very tempted to be fascist about the all whole thing – to say, we want to design the apartments, we want to design the hotel, we want to do everything. And then we realised that a) it wasn’t going to happen and b) the discourse is of this being part of the town. Okay, so we all live in Georgian houses – but should I really be telling people how to design their bathrooms? All architects want to control everything, but it's quite good to stand back sometimes and say: 'We're all different; it's a multicultural, multiwhatever world.'”
After a stop to open a door to the unfinished top-floor restaurant, he points to the floor by the lift. It's a map of London covered in sentences, mainly questions, related to the part of the city on which they're written. (So: “Where is time calculated?” represents Greenwich.) It's a jumble of cartoonish, sans-serif typeface and wavy lines. Matthews says: “Would I have designed the floor that way? Probably not. You have to stand back and say, 'am I the kind of guy who visits visitor attractions?' No, I'm not.”
Andy Nyberg, chief executive of The View from the Shard, previously managed the observation deck at the world's tallest skyscraper, Burj Khalifa. Simply called At the Top, the Burj Khalifa attraction, he says, is a very different proposition. “London just has so much more to offer than Dubai – you look at the Gulf on one side and Dubai on the other, up and down the coast. Here you have an attachment to history that's laid out: the Thames and the railroad tracks. It's just a much more interesting fabric than Dubai," he says.
Loyal to his new role, he also downplays the attractions of another viewing gallery he has managed, at Chicago's Willis (formerly Sears) Tower. "In Chicago, you had a lot of tall buildings, so you saw a lot of rooftops and stuff. In London you don't have that. So it's a unique view. It's the only place in London where you can see all of London, all at once. It's a 360 degree experience. You're free to leave any time you want, you're not trapped in a pod if you're uncomfortable."
The mention of pods is a gentle swipe at a rival attraction, the London Eye. When the giant ferris wheel on the South Bank – originally planned to be temporary – opened at the end of 1999, the existence of an attraction meant merely to provide a view was a novelty in the city.
Part of its success lies in how it combines fairground ride and sightseeing vehicle; nobody made claims for its ability to regenerate its site or the surrounding area. In contrast, Irvine Sellar, the developer who first proposed the Shard and pushed it through the planning process, has said it will "put London Bridge on the map" – a bold claim for one of London's oldest crossings and busiest transport hubs.
The actual view isn't a disappointment, of course. Today there are more 360 degree views of London than there were when the Telecom Tower in Euston first opened in 1966. Even though the tower has a working life as a telecommunications centre the opening ceremony focused on the revolving restaurant on the 34th floor, which completed a full rotation every 22 minutes.
But the 189m-high tower can't compete with the Shard's viewing platform at 244m from the building's base. And the 40-mile-radius view is, as Nyberg says, unimpeded by other buildings. Outlying suburbs grow sharper or dimmer depending on the sun emerging from or disappearing behind the clouds. Mainly, however, it seems more interesting to look straight down, where the transport infrastructure looks like a giant train set, although you can't control the trains. The "tell:scopes" on the 69th floor, which you can point at unidentified landmarks, look as if they should be in a control room and let you view the city as a participatory game, but the lower floor still isn't as interesting as the partially exposed 72nd.
The efforts of 19th-century photographers to make panoramic scenes that could previously only be created by painters played a part in displacing purely representative forms of painting. Now, we can see the same scenes out of an airplane, from the top of a supertall tower and as maps. A birds-eye view is still an experience, but in a post Google Earth world, it's not the wonder it once was.
Excitement about London's new viewing point can seem parochial when (never mind the skyscrapers that have risen and are still rising in the Middle and Far East) the Eiffel Tower still has a higher viewing platform (at 273m) than "the tallest building in western Europe". The emphasis the Shard's owners have placed on the view is also an attempt to cast the building as something other than a plutocratic tower that has landed in one of London's poorest boroughs. During the Shard's progress, there has been a slide from the idea of "public space" to the idea of it being "publicly accessible". But perhaps, as William Matthews says: "You go to the viewing gallery once, you go to the London Eye once; you might go to the restaurant twice a year or once a month."
It's impossible, of course, to know what will happen to the building in the long term, or who will be enjoying the view in the future. A hundred years ago, the tallest building in the world and newest addition to the Manhattan skyline was the Woolworth Building: the "Cathedral of Commerce". Just last summer, its part-owners announced their plan to turn the top 25 storeys into luxury apartments, which will be some of the highest and most expensive homes in New York. If the project is successful, it will be a new chapter in the history of the skyscraper or what Cass Gilbert, the Woolworth Building's architect, once called "a machine that makes the land pay". In the 21st century, the machine in older cities needs all the help it can get from the view.