Imploding with Cool

Greg Fonne/Getty Images
The Shard, London’s tallest skyscraper, June 2012

The best view of London is to be had from the north. Tourists and natives, elderly dog walkers, young kite-flyers, plump uncles anxious to walk off the effects of roast beef lunches: the people who make their way across Hampstead Heath to the top of Parliament Hill have been much the same mixture for as long as I remember, but the city they have come to look at has been dramatically transformed. Fifty years ago, the London skyline had very few verticals. As you looked south from Parliament Hill you saw the Post Office Tower to the west, Centre Point, a newly completed office block, to the east of it, and then, further east again, the familiar seventeenth-century dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Other than those protuberances and a few power station chimneys and new housing blocks, the great city stretched flat and indistinct all the way from the western suburbs to the Essex marshes.

Today, towers have sprung up everywhere, many of them oddly shaped and attention-seeking. (“Target architecture. Structures made to be blown apart” is how Iain Sinclair ominously describes the style.) Clumps of towers mark London’s two financial districts—the City and Canary Wharf—while others march up the Thames in single file, their river views designed to attract the footloose cash of Asian investors.

The tallest of these towers by far—so high that it seems as lonely as the tower in Tolkien’s Mordor—is the Shard, which soars 1,016 feet and 95 stories above London Bridge station and is currently the tallest building in Western Europe. (But not for long: two towers proposed for La Défense in Paris will be 34 feet taller when they are completed, probably in 2024.) The Italian architect Renzo Piano designed the Shard, a Qatari consortium paid for it, and Tony Blair’s government gave it the go-ahead on the grounds that it promised to be of “the highest architectural quality,” despite considerable opposition from many conservation bodies, including the national watchdog for the built environment, English Heritage.

Shardenfreude,” writes Iain Sinclair of the building’s impact on London, in a staccato denunciation:

It assaults you: vanity in the form of architecture. Desert stuff in the wrong place. Money laundering as applied art. Another unexplained oligarch’s museum of entropy for the riverbank. A giant dagger serving no real purpose: an exclamation point on the Google map of an abolished city once called London.

Nevertheless, he takes an elevator to the fifty-second floor and swims in the highest pool in Europe, “an infinity pond…a blue carpet across which you cannot walk without sinking,” and reflects on the fate of the city that for fifty years has housed him and nourished his imagination. Sinclair is completely out of sorts in a gilded tower like this; as he says, not many guests at the Shard’s…

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