Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer

By Dominic Bradbury

The views from the summit of The Shard are astonishing. The whole of London and its hinterland are spread out before you like a vast, moving tapestry. You can look out at Wembley Stadium and the Olympic Park, follow the winding route of the Thames and gaze down upon the sinuous Gherkin and the Nat West Tower. Directly below you sits Southwark Cathedral, looking like an exquisitely formed toy, along with Borough Market and a mass of spaghetti formed by rail lines converging upon London Bridge Station. This is the tallest building in Europe and its viewing gallery is certain to be one of the major tourist attractions of the city when it opens in 2013.

The Shard also happens to be the first British commission for one of the world’s most respected contemporary architects: Renzo Piano. He has built in countless countries and has loved London since he lived here in the late 1960s and early 1970s. When veteran developer Irvine Sellar asked Piano to design a building for his London Bridge site 11 years ago - over lunch in a Berlin restaurant at Potsdamer Platz, which Piano was master planning at the time - it marked a new and extraordinary beginning.

Just as you can see out of its windows for as much as 40 miles on a clear day, from the viewing gallery on the uppermost floors from storeys 68 to 72, so it seems that you can see the 1,016 feet high Shard from almost everywhere in the capital. Its sculpted, tapering form has become the most visible landmark on London’s skyline, and a source of deep fascination before construction has even completed. No wonder that, for Piano, the project carries a deep sense of responsibility.

‘Being an architect is a very dangerous job, because if you are wrong then of course everybody knows,’ Piano says, talking on one the lower floors of The Shard, following a tour of its soaring upper levels. ‘If you are a painter and you make the wrong composition, well, it doesn’t matter. It’s a pity, but you just don’t look at it. But if you are an architect, you are making something that will last forever. Maybe not forever, but for a long, long time.

‘So when you make something so visible and important, that responsibility becomes even more evident. The reason that this building will be loved – and I am ready to bet that it will be loved – is because it will be accessible, because it is transparent, visible, understandable and not mysterious. It is a public building.’

Piano describes The Shard as a ‘vertical town’. It combines offices on the lower floors with a 195-bedroom Shangri-La Hotel (part of the Hong Kong-based luxury hotel group )on floors 34 through 52, complete with spa and indoor infinity pool, and then ten luxury residences over the 13 floors above. But there will be also restaurants and then the observatory itself, so it is a tower that everybody will be able to visit and share, even if a multi-million-pound apartment does not suit your budget.

The Shard project – as Piano carefully explains with a lyrical Italian accent and an intelligent charm, like a kindly professor – coincided neatly with a number of themes that the architect had already been thinking about, including the idea of the multi-use vertical community.

For Piano, towers like The Shard will play an essential part in intensifying life in the centre of our cities, rather than allowing them to spread outwards, swallowing more and more land. They are focal points that address the challenge of dealing with growth, while trying to limit the gradual spread of urban sprawl into the landscape. And by placing The Shard upon a major transportation hub – with a mass of rail, underground and bus routes used by around 375,000 people a day – it connects with an existing public transport system rather than generating more road traffic and pollution.

‘We woke up at the beginning of the new century and finally discovered that the earth is fragile and must be defended,’ Piano says. ‘The first thing to defend is land. There is a nostalgic, almost romantic idea that it is more ecological to make a small building – forget it, this is the worst way to consume land. This is the reason that cities grow. It is more socially correct to intensify the city and free up space on the ground. The earth is fragile, the city is fragile and vulnerable, so we have to be careful.’

In construction, which began in 2009, The Shard recycled most of the rubble generated by the demolition of the unloved 1970s Southwark Tower office building that used to stand on the site. Piano and his team at the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, based in Paris, have been careful to create a tower that is as energy-efficient as possible. There is a skin of triple-glazing with integrated sun screens that can automatically shade sections of the tower if it begins to get too warm, cutting down on the need for air conditioning, but also taking advantage of the sun’s warmth to reduce heating bills.

This is all part of what Piano calls the narrative of the project – a series of inter-connected stories that thread their way through the building. Many people, of course, will be more fascinated by the sheer drama, scale and sculpted form of The Shard, which bears a strong resemblance to that original sketch made in a Berlin restaurant, according to those that have seen it. For Piano, the shape of the site and the hierarchy of uses within the building – from the offices up to the observatory – suggested a tapering spire from the beginning. This shard of glass has a crystalline quality that the architect suggests will soon become more apparent, perhaps next spring when the external glazing is fully completed and cleaned. With great care, Piano has specified a very particular low iron, white glass.

‘I love the idea of crystal and that’s why this metaphor came up,’ says Piano. ‘You will be surprised by the luminosity of the glass. The spire concept is something that goes up and disappears into the clouds – it belongs to our imaginations. It’s also about – and this may be a bit poetic – breathing fresh air. You don’t go up only to show muscle. You can go up to show muscle if you are stupid, but if you are not then you go up and look for fresh air to breathe. You cannot do that by taking possession of the sky with a big aggressive building. It is not because you want to beat a record. It is a shard, a presence in the sky of London, but it is not to compete.’

Part of the vibrancy of The Shard lies is the fact that here, on the south bank of the Thames by London Bridge, there is no competition for airspace. The tower appears to stand alone and emerges from a chaotic jumble of buildings and interchanges within an enclave that dates back to Roman times. Building the tower has been a vast logistical challenge, with construction having to tip-toe around the station at its base and the needs of its immediate neighbours on the ground, including Guy’s Hospital. The tower itself has cost around £430m to build over nearly three years of construction and sits within a £1.2bn zone called London Bridge Quarter - developed by Irvine Sellar’s Sellar Group, with the backing of the Qataris - which includes another, much smaller office block alongside The Shard, plus a new bus station and improvements to the rail station.

The design also had to accommodate a heightened safety regime for skyscrapers introduced in the wake of 9/11. The Shard is built around a super strong concrete core that holds all the key services, including the escape routes. There are a total of 44 lifts, including dedicated lifts for firefighters. The construction limit for London buildings is 1000 feet, but The Shard sits in a natural dip in the land, allowing for an extra 16 feet. Helicopter and airline pilots now use it as a reference point and – like the rest of us – have watched it grow piece by piece.

Irvine Sellar – a fashion entrepreneur turned serial developer, who nimbly recovered from a devastating business crash in the early 1990s - offers nothing but praise for his architect. He calls Piano ‘if not the greatest living architect, then certainly one of them’ and ‘the best architect I have ever had the experience of working with’. The architect himself more than understands that a skyscraper has a particular symbolism, a particular power, and that it will seize hold of people’s imaginations, adding another dynamic aspect to London’s complex character.


Renzo Piano was born in 1937 in Genoa, at that time one of the greatest ports in the Mediterranean. His father was a builder, mostly of houses, and as a child Piano spent a good deal of time on construction sites. There was an older brother, who eventually took over his father’s business, and an older sister. While a part of Renzo Piano may be a poet and an artist, another part is still a builder and a pragmatist.

‘Genoa is a city of the harbour and the sea and the harbour is a magical place, full of ships, like a moving, floating city,’ says Piano. ‘But my real love was the building site. A building site for a little boy is a marvellous place. I grew up thinking that building is a great thing to do with your life. Eventually you become an architect, but at heart you are still a builder. My father didn’t make big, big buildings, but for a little child a wall standing six metres high was really big. When you grow up, that never leaves you – it’s under your skin.’

There was another brother, also called Renzo, who died before the future architect was born. Piano accepts that this lost brother, this double, played a part in his upbringing. ‘In some ways I grew up with a special duty. I don’t want to become too dramatic about that, but it gives you an extra energy in some ways.’

Piano studied at the Politecnico di Milano and worked for a time with the legendary American architect Louis Kahn, known for his monumental, modernist style of building. But Piano saw that so much power in both Italy and France, in the 1960s, was still concentrated upon a creative establishment – upon the academies. It was only when he moved to London in 1969 – a place that Piano believed was much more open to architectural experiment, dynamism and dialogue - that he began to feel liberated. The city, he says, was his salvation, allowing him the space to pursue his passion for high-tech, lightweight architecture in the company of like-minded friends and mentors. He packed up his car and moved himself, his first wife and his two older children to London just as the Sixties were drawing to a close.

‘It was travelling to salvation – salvation from I don’t remember what,’ says Piano. ‘ I still see London like this. It was actually my second love. Genoa was the place where I was born but London was the place where I spent some of the most intriguing years of my life.’

One of the greatest friends that Piano made at that time was Richard Rogers; the two remain very close, talking every week, taking holidays together and sailing. They joined forces to form their own practice and in 1971 were the unexpected winners of an international competition to design a new museum in the heart of historic Paris: The Pompidou Centre.

‘We were both more or less unemployed and two unemployed people were better than one – it was much more fun,’ Rogers says. ‘We had very little work and then we won the Pompidou competition a year after we joined up. Luckily, we were sufficiently naïve not to realise what a chance it was. It’s important to be naïve sometimes.’

It became the most extraordinary adventure for two little-known architects still in their thirties. They had only ever designed one-storey buildings before and were suddenly creating a vast, complicated and highly innovative building that was to become one of Europe’s greatest and most popular museums. Along the way Piano and Rogers had to pick their way through a mass of French politics and reactionary mud-slinging, helping one another take each and every step.

‘Renzo is a shrewd politician and we slowly won it, but it was a tough, tough time,’ Rogers says. ‘It was great to have it but at the end of six years I nearly gave up architecture. But we helped one another through it and were very close from the beginning.

‘Various things make Renzo unsual,’ Rogers adds. ‘He is not a formalist and doesn’t do shapes for the fun of doing shapes. He makes poetry, but it comes out of a deep rooted belief both in the function of the building and a sense of place about where that building is. He has a very good feel for the site itself. Nothing is abstract in the sense of being unrelated to the site or the client’s brief. He is both a scientist and an artist.’

Later, Piano opened his own office in Paris, where the Renzo Piano Building Workshop is still based and where he lives with his second wife, Milly, with whom he has another two children. He tends to spend two weeks a month in France, a week in Genoa, where the practice also has an office, plus another week in New York – home to a third office, dealing with a constant American workload. There have been so many projects in America, particularly museums, that Piano has sometimes been described as the default choice for any great American cultural institution hunting for a prestige architect. In New York, he is currently working on a major new building for the Whitney Museum, near the High Line park, scheduled to open late next year.

Looking at his work, one is struck by the breadth of imagination that carries him across such rich and varied projects, like a writer who reinvents himself with every novel. From the mesmerising timber coated pavilions of the Tjibaou Cultural Centre in New Caledonia (1998) to the conical Il Vulcano Buono complex near Mount Vesuvius (2007) or the undulating green, planted roof protecting the planetarium and biospheres of the California Academy of Science in San Francisco (2008), Piano always has the power to surprise and delight.

There is no obvious ‘Piano style’. Each building is treated as a new adventure. His buildings are contextual, sensitive, environmentally aware and structurally innovative. They have a sense of both lightness and a mastery of light. They also tend to have a good degree of transparency. But his clients do not ask him to repeat himself and one imagines that he would decline, politely, any such invitation.

‘I like the idea of freedom,’ Piano says. ‘The most difficult thing is to get freedom from yourself. If you trap yourself in a style or become self-referential then you are really in trouble and then it becomes about how can you be recognisable.

‘It’s about going out to the frontier of the discipline all the time. You start from the place where you are, the climatic conditions, the people and the community you have in front of you – so many things. You have to be stupid to repeat the same thing because all those things are always different. Reality gives you a different story to tell all the time. That’s the reason why the buildings are not the same because the stories are always different.’

There is also a second London building by Piano, with its own story. Central St Giles – just off Shaftesbury Avenue, where Holborn meets Covent Garden  – was commissioned later than The Shard, in 2002, but overtook it and completed last year. This too has a distinctive character and has become a reference point in the visual map of the city, yet in a very different way to The Shard.

Central St Giles has the feel of a small collection of inter-related buildings, with a piazza at their heart. They cradle offices for the likes of Google and NBC Universal on the upper levels, but at ground level they are almost transparent, with space for a series of restaurants. There are also apartments and roof terraces. Again, there is a strong narrative, centred upon the ambition to create buildings ten storeys high that suit the scale of this part of London but that also allow the public to pass through and interact with them. They are coated in distinctive ceramic tiles, in a creamy white but also – for certain facades – in burnt orange and lime green.

‘London is thought to be a grey city,’ Piano says, ‘but I never thought of it as a grey city myself. Colour is part of the city. At Central St Giles, I thought it would be one of those things that is unexpected at the beginning but then becomes a reference point when you are in the centre of London and as you go around it. It is a recognisable element without rhetoric – it’s just for enjoyment and pleasure.’

It’s safe to assume that there will be more invitations for Piano to build in London; the wonder is that it has taken so long for his work to reach the city.
But first The Shard must be completed. By the time it opens the year after next [2013], the building will have taken Piano on a long journey with a little controversy along the way. The building passed through a £10m public enquiry, with the support of then London mayor Ken Livingstone and was approved by John Prescott, Deputy PM at the time. But English Heritage did criticise the building for its potential impact upon views of heritage London, including St Paul’s Cathedral.

Piano himself makes very clear that he always listens carefully to such criticism, recognizing the importance of The Shard upon the daily lives of all Londoners. ‘When I heard this idea that this building may take something away from St Paul’s, I thought, my God, is this true,’ says Piano. ‘I tried to understand and decided that this was not true. St Paul’s will never lose its iconic function. I know that The Shard will have a very important role in the imaginations of many people. I know that and I have been spending a lot of energy not just designing nuts and bolts but arguing, discussing, exploring and understanding the more poetical, the more delicate argument of this building’s symbolism.’

‘The Shard is an extremely important addition to the skyline,’ says Richard Rogers. ‘It is a landmark. The skyline is changing very fast and now we have The Shard going up at exactly the right point. It’s going to go down as one of Renzo’s major work and I think it will be one of his major successes.’