The storm clouds have been gathering over the Shard ever since it was announced, 11 years ago. Now that the building has reached its full height, it has inevitably become a lightning rod. Few structures in Britain have so dominated the skyline or the architectural debate. To its opponents, it has stabbed London in the heart: it is too tall, it destroys the scale of the city, it disrupts historic views, it is in the wrong place, it is a waste of energy – a monument to greed, money, inequality, foreign influence and broken Britain. To its supporters, however, it is a jolt of the modern – the moment London truly joined the 21st century.
Appropriately, on the day its architect Renzo Piano meets me there, the clouds have all but engulfed the building. On a clear day, apparently, you can see 60 miles from the top. This isn’t one of them. Even from the eighth floor, the riverbank opposite is a blur, obscured by fog and a cascade of rainwater running all the way down the sloping windows from the 87th floor. But Piano seems impervious to both the weather and the lightning bolts of criticism. Tall, elegant, relaxed and mellifluously spoken, the 74-year-old Italian looks every bit the internationally renowned architect. Well, almost. Beneath his raincoat, he’s wearing a T-shirt with a pink slogan. “Trust me, I’m an architect,” it says.
“There’s a moment when you need to trust,” Piano smiles, pointing at his shirt. “Because you can’t predict everything. You cannot prove mathematically that what you’re doing is going to work. But you have to be bloody sure – because if you do something like this wrong, it’s wrong for centuries.” He told the judge the same thing during the public inquiry into its planning. “And I was keeping my fingers crossed in my pocket,” he says.
The inquiry approved the Shard on the strength of its exceptional design. Realising he had a golden opportunity to build something super-tall, the developer Irvine Sellar had been advised to get a highly credible architect after his first proposal, by Broadway Malyan, was mauled by the press. He appears to have trusted Piano a great deal. The tapering, faceted form of the Shard, referencing London’s history of spires and masts, was quickly agreed upon. Piano also suggested what to put inside: a mix of office space on the lower floors, a hotel in the middle, and apartments above. It was Piano who recommended it be open to the public, via a viewing gallery at the top and three floors of restaurants a third of the way up. Piano even christened the building, likening it to “a glass shard” at a press conference. “It is not difficult to make a new shape,” he says. “Even children can do that. What is difficult is to make new shape that makes sense.”
Crystalline structures entranced such early modernists as Germany’s Bruno Taut, whose 1914 Glass Pavilion was adorned with such utopian slogans as “Glass brings a new era” and “Light wants crystal”. Yet, where most glass towers are basic geometric forms, the Shard, which officially opens next month, achieves something more sculptural. Its giant sides fold and overlap, creating fissures and niches; what’s more, being angled, they reflect the sky, fragmenting the building’s scale and turning it, says Piano, into “a mirror of London – on a sunny day, it is fantastic”. On a grey day like today, however, the poetry is not quite so apparent, and its hulking mass is impossible to disguise.The faceted form breaks up the scale inside, too. Floors of offices, with their central elevators and glass-lined perimeters, can all look very much alike, but the Shard’s irregular floor plans create something less regimented. And, instead of corner offices for managers to hog, there are “winter gardens” with openable windows. The fissured sides also conceal ventilation grilles and service openings, from which cranes can emerge like robotic arms to clean and maintain the building. As for the environmental drawbacks of an all-glass tower, which can heat up like a greenhouse, they are less relevant in Britain’s temperate climate.
The chief complaint with the Shard, though, is not the building’s design or technical performance, but its location. It’s fine, say critics, for Dubai or Hong Kong – but why did it have to go here? It’s difficult to deny that the Shard is out of scale with the low-rise streets around it, or that it ruins the view of St Paul’s Cathedral from Parliament Hill. But then London has never been a precious, historic jewel of a city like Venice or Paris: it has grown haphazardly, been scarred by war and fire, and has continually overwritten its own history. That’s not to say there is no place for heritage, but the balance is a dynamic one. London is still in flux. St Paul’s once looked out of scale, but it has now been dwarfed by the high-rises of the City; the Shard’s context will also change. And, just across the Thames, stands the concrete core of Rafael Viñoly’s upcoming 37-storey “Walkie Talkie”, potentially an uglier and more obtrusive design than Piano’s.
“This building is not made with the intention to be aggressive or powerful,” says Piano. “It is not about priapismo. This building is telling a completely different story. It is celebrating a shift – in the idea that growth in a city should not happen by building more and more on the periphery. This city is one of the first that decided to have a green belt, a clear physical limit; if you have to grow, you grow inside. I’m not an advocate of tall buildings, but I am an advocate of intensifying the city from the inside.”
And yes, says Piano, it had to go here. The Shard may be, at almost 310m, the tallest building in the EU, yet it has just 48 parking spaces – the point being that it sits right by London Bridge station, a major transport hub. “It’s another big shift – to tell people, ‘Look, stop going around in cars.’ In this city, it’s less terrible, but try to do this in Milan. Try to do this in Paris, Los Angeles. Would you expect hostility? Of course. You have to accept as an architect to be exposed to criticism. Architecture should not rely on full harmony. If everyone is agreeing, then you make a big mistake.”
Piano has weathered greater hostility than this. His career began, after all, with one of the most provocative buildings in modern architecture: 1977′s Pompidou Centre in Paris, which he and Richard Rogers designed in their 30s. In terms of language, if not height, the Pompidou is still far more radical than the Shard. A lightweight box covered in ducts and pipes, it defied the notion that cultural architecture should be solid, monumental, intimidating. Critical opposition was virtually unanimous and legal action was taken to try to stop it going ahead. “I’m still surprised we were allowed,” he smiles. “We were bad boys. We were teenagers. Worse than teenagers – we were Beatles!” There’s a touch of Yellow Submarine to the Pompidou, he admits, but that was the spirit of the age. This was the early 1970s, when Piano was at London’s Architectural Association, hanging out with sci-fi technophiles such as the Archigram team. He fell in easily with the Italian-speaking Rogers. “Richard was more intellectual, more brilliant,” says Piano. “I was more like a bricoleur [handyman].”
Despite the shock of the Pompidou, Piano’s work has since followed a serene, craftsmanlike path, true to his family’s roots in construction. His practice is called Renzo Piano Building Workshop and his Genoa HQ has been likened to a spiritual retreat. He has, however, no obvious signature style: the best of his work seeks refined harmony rather than virtuosic display. His many art galleries defer to the work rather than make “iconic” statements. His New York Times skyscraper, in contrast to the Shard, goes almost too far in its reticence, appearing grey and anonymous from a distance.
But Piano has never stopped being radical. In the 1990s, he designed an airport terminal, a spectacular 2km long, on a giant artificial island in Japan’s Osaka Bay. He concealed San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences beneath an undulating roof of grass and plants. He is working on a skyscraper in South Korea that is twice the height of the Shard (and will doubtless attract half the controversy). And the most contentious of all his works has probably been the least radical: adding a new monastery and gatehouse to Le Corbusier’s celebrated chapel in Ronchamp, France. Several high-profile architects signed a petition denouncing such interference with an architectural treasure.
“In every interesting job,” says Piano, “you are there not to change the world, but to witness the change in the world.” So the Shard is merely a manifestation of the hard choices growing cities have to make. “You do not get hostility because you are wrong, but because people have a fear of change. Around any job, you can always build a good story and a bad story. And the hostility goes away – because if you are right, then the good story comes out.”