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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Monday, 14 January 2013

The Shard? Maybe it's too good for London.

The Shard and City of London from Brockwell Park, Lambeth

Today, the Shard was showering silver light across Southwark and into my borough, Lambeth. I liked it a lot.

The  debate about Renzo Piano's strange addition to London skyline has been quite good fun, if predictable. Many have complained that it's too big or damages views of St Paul's or whatever. As if London actually had a skyline worth preserving, before this rather beautiful  reverse icicle appeared, shaming all the shabby 60s and 70s and - ugh - 80s and - yee-uch - 90s stumps it looks down on.

Tip of the Shard, dramatic clouds, London, 2012.That great Canaletto skyline of St Pauls lording it over all the other Wren churches and warehouses was finally trashed in the 1950s and 60s. I'd argue that the so-called Shard (spike? stalagmite? stretched tee-pee?) acts as a sort of peg for all the new rubbish. It gives them a wonky sort of focus, hints at what might have been had London had a proper cluster of aerial architecture. It suggests this most strongly only from directly due north and due south viewpoints. From Brixton Hill, or from suicide bridge in Highgate, say.

From others - as from the little south London train that clatters between Clapham High Street and Peckham Rye - you see all of London's new, tall buildings in a washing-line parade, or as a receding gum stabbed with an absurdly variegated assortment of rotting and disintegrating teeth.

Like the Gherkin, but unlike most others, the Shard works well as a standalone. Nothing else built in this muddy riverside settlement over the past three decades has quite so cleverly exploited our fast-changing estuarine skies and cloudscapes. I am very biased, I love real skyscrapers. By real, I mean something that soars away and makes you gasp. In the 70s, Centre Point and Barbican and the NatWest tower tried and failed. I have always despaired at London's pussyfooting approach, and I hate the dreary cluster of sub-Dallas identikit bricks downriver.

But even sceptics are beginning to enjoy the Shard. I love the way it pinpoints London Bridge for anyone anywhere within a 20 mile radius. How, as you follow the Thames, it approaches, and recedes, and approaches again, and teaches you just how extreme are the river's bends.

I love how it disappears into the grey eiderdown and blotting-paper clouds that so often flop down  across the city. I love how it wears its glass like a sort of frozen gown, translucent drapery that reveals flashes of the muscles beneath.

I love how it rises, so un-phallic, above the city as you cycle down any of the seven south London hills towards the centre, and get that reverse-Whittington view of the golden cow of the city. I love how, quite often, I think I am looking at yet another view of the Shard and then realise it's just another Victorian church spire a few hundred yards away.

From Hampstead Heath, it complements St Pauls, standing back, offering the great cathedral some reflected light, and in no way competing with it.

I love how it seeems to bulge at the base and embrace poor ugly old Guys Hospital next door. At times, it's almost a mother-and-child portrait - you wish the shard could wrap some of its glittering glass skirts around the malformed granny, hide her brutal planes. But then again, Guys has a mad beauty about it. It is really the dwarish grand-parent of this ludicrously elongated sapling.

I love how it shines with almost biblical auras at dawn on clear winter mornings. And how on dull grey afternoons it takes on much of the grey-green muddiness of the thames water it rises out of.

Nearly complete Shard from Borough High Street, Southwark
It's really a far better building than London deserves at the moment. The true spirit of London of 2013 seems more honestly reflected in the thuggish, moronic, shoulder-padded silhouette of the lump going up on Fenchurch Street. Now that really is ruining views.