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Skylines: Opinions on Renzo Piano's Shard, London

As the Shard celebrates its opening, the AR presents a spectrum of views on London’s towering addition from key figures in British Architecture




Charles Jencks is a leading historian and critic

Renzo Piano says he was inspired by ‘London spires’ but this is a reminder that, as built, the Shard is a very secular structure, and as for his ‘sailing masts’, they also underline the missing reality, further boat imagery and curves of the first design. The ‘shards’ are neither the potsherds of the name, nor the slivers of ice, stone and glass of the main metaphor. Instead they are large, flat, industrial window-walls that taper − long, thin ‘sky-wedges of see-through rectangles’ – that may create a pleasing silhouette, depending on the view, and weather. The ‘pyramid and obelisk’, also invoked by critics, are traditionally backed up by solar symbolism at a smaller scale − also missing. And the six-degree slope does not quite ‘reflect the sky’ on most days, because the glass is so transparent. Indeed, if visual metaphors are the issue then the major architectural fault is not only their lack of resolution in details, but the repetition of an inadvertent meaning. The remorseless horizontal grids, that are all too visible through the glass, are reinforced by the 11,000 windows of similar panes.

The result is the typical Late-Modern Malapropism − ‘Monothematatis’. As if to confirm this interpretation, the social and cultural differentiation of a vertical town of 10,000 people is given no articulation, no symbolic expression. Instead, repeated grids and the seamless aesthetic of digital production betray the power of an institute of sameness.

But still I like the Shard and am glad to see it built, especially when contemplating what commercial architects might have done. The mixed functions will, as Piano avers, give it a ‘24-hour life’. As for positive visual metaphors, the Shard provides a ‘navigation point’ for lost Londoners, popping helpfully into view at many points, yet disappearing into clouds when they are low and thus becoming the infinite ‘sky-pricker’ of Jean Nouvel’s dream. Indeed, as a naturalistic and cosmic metaphor it is something of the ultimate ‘cloudscraper’ and ‘clustered icicle’. Effective icons demand some paranoid charge. I can even like the building for its non-precious detailing, the way its remorseless windows disappear into nothingness. But maybe I’m not the only person conflicted between opposite tastes and thoughts. Europe’s biggest building demands to be judged at the highest level.


A view of the long-vanished old London Bridge: Piano was apparently inspired by the city’s spires




Amanda Levete is Director of Amanda Levete Architects

In many ways the Shard is a one-liner — but what a line! Its height and relationship to the city is daring and awe-inspiring, respectful of both historical neighbours and contemporaries without yielding its confidence and command of the cityscape. One of my favourite views is from the top of Parliament Hill where the Shard stands like a proud grandfather overlooking an infant St Paul’s Cathedral nestling below.

In what other city, with a history dating back to Roman times, could one of the world’s most advanced skyscrapers be built on top of one of the world’s oldest railway stations? It’s this juxtaposition and tension between tradition and progress that gives London its edge and life. The prowess and technical feats of Victorian infrastructure and super-modern tower are beautifully expressed side by side.

It would have been more perfect if the planners had not reduced the height by 300 feet. Having bravely agreed to a tower so high, why take off the top? Whose views would have been compromised 1,300 feet up in the air? London has never really been comfortable with tall buildings, but hopefully acclaim for the Shard will change that.


A preliminary sketch shows the tower as a gnomon or obelisk




Owen Hatherley is a critic and author

The Shard is not a supertall tower by Broadway Malyan, which it could have been − and that’s about the most sympathetic thing I can think to say about it. It’s also interestingly multifunctional, although the fact that none of those functions is anything other than oligarchical somewhat dampens my enthusiasm, as does Piano’s obvious lack of interest in articulating what happens inside, smoothing it all into an all-encompassing one-liner − something of a contrast with the unsexily legible (never mind socially useful) Guy’s Hospital Tower next door. The Shard is sleek, well-made and evil, and its dystopian presence is a constant reminder on the London skyline that something has gone seriously awry with British democracy, not least in terms of local democracy.

The Shard is rammed unforgivingly into Southwark, though it would fit rather well into the steroidal mutation of Gordon Cullen-style townscape pieced together by Peter Rees in the City. Especially on the ground, in the ‘London Bridge Quarter’, it’s obnoxiously domineering, lording it over the ’30s council estates nearby. And we all know why that was allowed to happen − so a politically impotent (or perhaps just bored) poor inner-city borough can lucratively remake itself as an extension of the City. The iniquitous, chaotic gentrification of the Elephant & Castle is the concomitant of the Shard’s appearance on the streets of Southwark. In fact, the best thing about the Shard is that it makes such an explicit statement about power, about who matters and who doesn’t. For all the rhetoric about public-spiritedness, Piano’s recourse to that most despotic of forms, the Pyramid, is no accident.


The Shard set in scale with nearby low-rise housing




Peter Buchanan is an architecture critic and spearheads the AR’s campaign The Big Rethink

At moments, from a few vantage points, the Shard looks marvellous. On late afternoons on Primrose Hill it is sometimes a spectral silvery-white presence, barely there, as if sketched in by CGI. The Shard then lives up to Renzo Piano’s dream of unassertive evanescence. But from other angles and closer to, it is a bloated brute; Piano’s initial design was better proportioned, although more outrageously excessive in height. Slapdash in conception and unresolved, the irregular plan tapers upwards to peel open like a banana. Worse is the base and what surrounds it: the dinky, hideously fussy canopies (due to jarring disjunctions in scale of supporting members) set far too high, the drab station concourse extension and inelegantly fiddly bus shelters − all stuff Piano can do well.

The enlarged bus station is a boon, as are public facilities in the tower, although the entrance fee is too much for many Londoners. But the Shard is much too big, as is Piano’s building rising beside it, and completely out of character with the surrounding area − the evocation of spires and sails is fatuous. Bermondsey is gritty, fine-grained and very varied, the only central area in London that gives a sense of how parts of London were. The impact of the money and tastes of the rich Shardites will inevitably sweep this away.

The Shard and its stubby brother are indictments of Britain’s negotiated planning system, prone to steamrollering by the combination of starchitects and big bucks, aided by and resulting in the dismal architectural legacy of Mayor Ken Livingstone, his advisor Richard Rogers (ex-partner of Piano) and CABE. After the successive exposés about this era of supercharged greed, perhaps we will realise again that there is more to life than making and pandering to money, and that the advocacy and cherishing of civic values, of the character and continuity of urban fabric that seems to shelter and relate to us, is not nostalgia but the essence of civilised life.


Site plan concourse level




Ex-partner of Piano, Lord Rogers is a former advisor to both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson

The Shard is the most beautiful addition to the London skyline. Its beauty is in part due to the ever-changing play of light across the facades of the building. Even when the sky is dark it captures the light around it and stands like a blade cutting through the clouds.

The Shard represents the ideals behind the ‘vertical village’, with live-work and leisure facilities stacked one on top of another. It is also located in absolutely the right place, standing above one of the most important transport hubs in Europe, limiting the need to use a car. It is, after all, more sustainable to take a lift than drive a car. The Shard anchors the best piece of urban regeneration in the world − the walk from Westminster Bridge to Tower Bridge and beyond − and will help regenerate Southwark: one of the most run-down areas of London. It is a welcome new London landmark.





Chairman of the National Trust, Simon Jenkins is an author and a columnist for The Guardian, from where this excerpt was taken

This tower is anarchy. It conforms to no planning policy. It marks no architectural focus or rond-point. It offers no civic forum or function, just luxury flats and hotels. It stands apart from the City cluster and pays no heed to its surrounding context in scale, materials or ground presence. It seems to have lost its way from Dubai to Canary Wharf.

The Shard was furiously opposed by local people, by Southwark council and by historic buildings and conservation authorities. It was pushed as a symbol of Britain’s love affair with financial bling at the turn of the 21st century, with ‘iconic’ celebrities and the eff-you greed of arbitrage. It was allowed to go ahead by John Prescott as a single-finger gesture in the face of wimpish southerners.

There is no case for buildings like this on grounds of urban density. Their space ratios make them costly and inefficient to service. Any Londoner knows there are thousands of acres of unused and underused land within the M25 awaiting the high-density, low-rise building preferred by the property market.

Some people find the Shard beautiful. I am sure I would in the Gulf, as I admire the Burj Khalifa. But Bermondsey is not Dubai. Nor is this just a matter of one person’s opinion against another’s. It is the destruction of one for the other’s gain. There are plenty of places for Sellar and Piano to play their games. Why must they tip paint over my Canaletto?





Paul Finch is a former Chair and Commissioner of CABE and Editorial Director of the AR and AJ

Like any icon, the Shard demands attention and has received it in spades from London cab drivers (split views), architects (benefit of the doubt), and the non-fraternity of architectural critics puzzled by this south-of-the-Thames phenomenon.

The usual dreary parade of received opinions on the subject of large commercial buildings has been much in evidence, but counts for little. If you have an aversion to commerce and commercial buildings, you are disqualified from making any reasonable assessment of the building. Ditto those obsessed with pretending that London is still conducting a debate about whether tall buildings are appropriate to a Canaletto city. They have missed the boat and the point.

The Shard is a triumph of commercial optimism, rooted in its location at the symbolic birthplace of London, refined by a set of contemporary filters and conditions which have enriched the programme and the resulting building. Yes, it is a very large office building, but it also includes a hotel, apartments, and most importantly public areas and facilities at height. Yes, it will mean more people arriving at London Bridge station who will work or use the building, but then it is contributing to the long overdue transformation of links between transport systems below ground.

It will soon be easy to forget how dreadful the experience of using London Bridge station was, and the grimness of the immediate working environment. The Shard replaced a squat little non-event tower, while its neighbouring sister building (also by Renzo Piano) saw the demolition of a Richard Seifert tower hopelessly compromised, like many of his buildings, at ground level.In the architectural history of London, the Shard has won an instant place thanks to Piano and the persistence of his client, Irvine Sellar. It is here to stay, and no bad thing.


Sectional view showing the integration of tower and transport hub




Sir Terry Farrell is a leading architect and urbanist

The most significant achievement of the Shard is to give real momentum to the regeneration of London Bridge Station. This has been, by far, London’s most difficult and problematic transport hub and thankfully it is now getting resolved. As with all tall buildings, it’s what happens at ground level that really matters. Up in the air, its angled-back, glazed enclosure really does effect a ‘disappearing’ act against the sky. In its overall shape, the tower is to my mind a bit of a 1960s Dan Dare version but as with all Renzo’s buildings it has its own elegance. I saw the opening-night light show and, although a mere fraction of the size, duration and synchronisation of what happens across multiple bigger towers every evening in Hong Kong at 8pm, it brought drama and spectacle to London’s skyline. Well done Irvine Sellar − a very determined man!





Sarah Ichioka is director of the Architecture Foundation, a near-neighbour of the Shard

We are each trying to take our own measure of the Shard. My office is near London Bridge, so I’ve had ample time to study the tower’s vertical progress on a daily basis. If I had to depict the building’s impact, I would share a series of snapshots of people − the tourist, the businesswoman, the local resident − each caught in the act of looking up, at the precise moment that the Shard asserts (or reasserts) itself into his or her consciousness. Sometimes they look perplexed, occasionally exhilarated, but most frequently overwhelmed.

Whereas the office towers north of the Thames jostle with each other for attention, acting as mutual foils and measures, the Shard soars solo, scaleless, elegantly free from the confines of context. The generation of awe through sheer verticality is so obviously the building’s primary intention that I don’t buy for one second Irvine Sellar’s claim that his building’s record-setting height was simply a ‘by-product’ of other development concerns.

I’ve noted with interest how many of the Shard stories in the popular press, those shaping our collective imagination of the building, have juxtaposed the lone figure − whether a fox, a daredevil student, or a stranded window cleaner − against its expanse, attempts perhaps to impose some sort of human scale on its inestimable volume.

Watching the Shard’s inaugural light show, as it reached out across the skyline with laser beams to poke other landmarks, I yearned instead for Philippe Petit − the ‘Man on Wire’ − and his playful, low-tech, breathtaking feat, which fleetingly humanised the World Trade Center towers when they still dominated southern Manhattan.

Of course the true measure of the building will be not what it looks like from afar, but how well it works with thousands of people in and around it, and how well it can be knitted back into the London Bridge station complex, which currently struggles to cope, and is one of the capital’s least pleasant mainline termini. Judgement on that scale will have to wait another five years or more, until the new station is completed, and the Shard is properly anchored in the living city.


The Shard under construction


Christopher Woodward is co-author of the definitive guide to London’s architecture

The Shard is that most London of objects: its genesis familiar, its form alien. From the early 17th century, and without a powerful monarchy, London’s development has proceeded through the initiatives of institutions, corporations, builders or individuals. Over the next four centuries the forms of building were determined first by informed aristocratic and mercantile taste, later by regulations designed to inhibit the uncontrolled spread of fire and disease, by technology and, in the 20th century, by planning. This last was largely dismantled in the 1980s, leaving only light touch regulation.

Mayor Boris Johnson, whose deprecation of tall buildings was included in his first election manifesto, now talks blithely of ‘natural clusters of towers’ as he might of the blooming of wildflowers in a meadow. The City of London’s experiment with this primitive notion since the 1980s is now evident as a grotesque failure both for the connoisseur’s veduta from the South Bank and for the street user’s experience.

Johnson has most recently defended the import of yet another alien form by reference to the Tower of London’s French origins. He conveniently forgets that its White Tower was built not merely as an endearing heritage asset: it actually had two functions, one instrumental, to defend London from seaborne attack from the east. The other was symbolic: to shock and awe the civilian population into submission to the implacable new Norman rulers. The new tower, similarly rudimentary in form, conveys very little except uncurbed greed.


The Shard viewed from the station




Simon Allford is co-founder of the London-based practice Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Refined on the skyline, disappointingly opaque from the middle ground and not yet seen by me from within, the Shard celebrates an idea pertinent to London today. That the labyrinthine rules are still there to be broken and that by allowing, or even encouraging architecture to reach into the sky you can demand in return that it reinvents the ground.

The Shard is also the extraordinary product of ambition and outsiders. It represents the story of how a rag trade entrepreneur with chutzpah meets a Genoese architect with charm and together they pull off not one coup but three. First they persuade an ambitious borough on the wrong side of the water to grant them permission to build the tallest tower that breaks the complex rules of London’s skyline, but one that in return, funds the repair of a shattered piece of city and infrastructure. Then they persuade oil billionaires from across the globe to break London’s institutional funding traditions and finance the stacking of apartments over hotel over offices over station over city. And then they actually build it.

The Shard exists because London is a global city. And London is that because with Greenwich Mean Time London invented and owns global time. Because the historical dominance of Britain’s Empire ensured that the world speaks London’s language. Because as a trading city on the periphery London established and retains a reputation for transparency in financial and legal dealings. So the Shard’s story is London’s story, a story of people coming together to invent the opportunities that might be offered by particular coincidences of place, space and time. The Shard exists because at its best London has always embraced invention and outsiders.

For these reasons alone I am delighted to see it standing tall on the skyline in an unexpected place confidently breaking rules.


Rising above neighbouring Southwark’s high street, where the juxtaposition of bristling pinnacle to grungy London life is most pronounced




Patrik Schumacher is a teacher, author and co-director of Zaha Hadid Architects

Before offering my critical remarks about Renzo’s Shard I would like to express my admiration for his gigantic oeuvre, and unambiguously state that I consider the Shard to be a very impressive achievement and a welcome addition to London’s skyline. Also, the critical considerations I would like to share here could equally be levelled against many of our own designs. So, my criticism is a latent self-criticism. My criticism has two headlines: formalism and muteness.

Formalism: the form is insufficiently motivated. The project seems to sacrifice efficiency for the formal purity of the pyramid. It appears like a simple monument rather than a complex building.

Muteness: the tower does not communicate itself enough. Although it stacks up many different uses this programmatic richness is not articulated. The uniform envelope abstracts from this internal differentiation. The project also misses the opportunity to express its subsystems like structure, sun protection, circulation, etc, each offering opportunities for articulated, adaptive differentiation. Such large complex buildings are perfect opportunities to test our design capacity to make architecture speak by making the complexity of these rich urban offerings perceptually palpable and semiologically legible.



Architect: Renzo Piano Building Workshop
Facades: Scheldebouw
Station facade and roof: Seele
Glass: Pilkington
Glass coating: Interpane
Photographs: Paul Raftery,

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Readers' comments (4)

  • Anti-urban urbanism attains a new degree of crystalline perfection: a hermetically sealed Platonic solid, a new pyramid to tower over the slaves of capital, plugged directly into the anus of suburbia to avoid contamination of its migratory hive workers.

    An autistic, Ayn Randian triumph of the will, it's a back-of-the-envelop doodle arbitrarily inflated by funny money. This glass wigwam is not some metastasis of a deeper cancer: it is the cancer itself.

    Tom Wilkinson

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  • Cristina Donati

    The Shard is an amazing architecture gesture, the signature of a Master in London.
    It is also an icon of the new power of the "emerging world". A financial power that has its dematerialized landmark. The Shard is not just a skilfull piece of architecture but a subtle interpretation of the world we live in.

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  • I deplore this fence-sitting editorial approach. Why can't AR find the courage to take a position?

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  • Tom, no corporate entity can do anything but sit on the fence. The shard is architecture taking an inhuman step in the wrong direction.

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