The disappointment generated by the Shard’s opening laser light show is not so surprising for a project that has been grounded in controversy for over a decade. Since 2000, when Piano sketched his initial vision upon meeting developer Irvine Sellar, the project has consistently met obstacles such as English Heritage and the financial crash of 2007. But, the biggest opposition of the tower has been its height. English Heritage claimed that the tower, formerly known as London Bridge Tower, would “tear through historic London like a shard of glass” (ironically, coining the new name of the tower), and Piano counters that, “The best architecture takes time to be understood…I would prefer people to judge it not now. Judge it in 10 years’ time.”
Leading us to wonder…does the Shard simply need time to be fully appreciated?
Surely, this is not the first time architects have used the argument of time to defend their projects. We all bear witness to projects which struck a cord of discomfort upon completion, but are now regarded as notable architecture (recently, we discussed this very notion for Boston City Hall by Gerhard Kallmann). Yet, in such a fast paced, interconnected, technology-driven world, times are constantly changing, leading us to wonder still…is this argument of time valid, or furthermore, necessary?
Situated in a historic part of London, the Shard must carefully find the balance between respecting the existing while “intensfiying” the city. It is evident that Piano’s vision strongly references the historic spires that speckle London’s skyline. The tower’s edges, which are pulled far away enough from the structure to emphasize the fragmented nature of the surfaces, elegantly taper toward the sky and seem to disappear into the clouds.
While historical references have clearly informed the massing, the design was also inspired by the site’s contextual surroundings, namely the sails of the ships on the Thames. ”If you ask me what is a kind of constant with me it is this idea of making a building fly – creating something with zero gravity. Maybe this is why I love sailing so much. Sailing is not just about the wind, it is about the boat, and its buoyancy and its lightness, and maybe, yes, the Shard is like that,” explained Piano to Simon O’Hagan of The Independent.
And, while traces of nautical themes can be found in Piano’s previous projects (take NEMO in Amsterdam, for instance), we find the blend of historical and contextual to manifest themselves rather elegantly in this 1,000+ ft tower.
While the intentions are layers deep, debate still rages on as critics argue for Piano to justify such grand moves. When asked at the opening ceremony for about the dominating nature of the building over the landscape and London’s historic buildings, Piano explained, “Every classic building was modern at one time. You have to be good. We do a very dangerous job as architects, because if you make a mistake, it lasts for a long time.”
“I have always loved St Paul’s. St Paul’s is an icon of mine because it is a great building. It’s fantastic. But when St Paul’s was built, it was modern, just like the Shard is modern now. It wasn’t a classic at the time. It became a classic,” explained Piano.
Far beyond the aesthetic expression of the tower, Piano’s talent lies in his ability to craft a piece of architecture that will give back to the city. On the macro level, the project will play a pivotal factor in the regeneration of the concourse of London Bridge Station, while at the more local scale, Piano has physically opened the building to the public with an amazing viewing gallery high on the 72nd floor (which, when opened in February of 2013, will be the highest public area in London).
Piano’s design does not disregard its context, but it also does not ignore its proper place in “the now.” Surely, the contemporary will not cast a shadow over the historic, as the two must be seen as complements paying homage to the achievements and progression of a city, and not regarded as competitors.