Sunday, July 15, 2012

Reflections on the Shard

The laser show to mark the completion of external works at the Shard was a bit of a non-event for South London on 5th July. In New Cross, there were several hundred people gathered in the dusk in Telegraph Hill Park expecting to see lights in the sky, the latest in a long line of spontaneous gatherings there for similar purposes (the solar eclipse 1999, the Millennium, New Year's Eve). But the light show seems to have been more focused on the north side of the building so there was nothing much to see - and maybe we were just too far away. As I said on twitter at the time 'Judging by tonight's Shard show, our rulers are struggling with the 'circuses' bit of the 'bread & circuses' deal as well as the bread bit'. Somebody else joked 'Only just opened & already it’s betrayed its South London roots'.

So to the long list of metaphors attached to the building we migh add another one - that while it is situated South of the river by London Bridge it is oriented more to the City of London on the north bank of the Thames. Or maybe that it represents the spreading of the architecture of wealth and power from the City to an area that for hundreds of years resisted the encroachments of the authorities on the other side of the bridge.

The temple of mammon dwarfing St George's Church in Borough High Street?
(I took this photo last year)

We could also add that it represents a post-colonial shift in the international balance of power, with capital from former British imperial territories (Quatar and China) now shaping the landscape next to the site of the docks where for centuries plunder from across the seas was unloaded.

Having spent much time at ground level by the Shard building site from day one though, it also represents to me the results of a huge effort of collective human labour. The workers in their helmets have come from all over the world to raise this building from the ground. The product of their labour is (among other things) a hotel that most of those who built it will never be able to afford to stay in. The working conditions of those employed by Mace have been the focus of protests at the Shard (including last May Day), as like other construction companies they have used the ruse of employing through agencies to get round national agreements on pay. Nevertheless there has been something awe-inspiring in the sight of the skill and ingenuity of hundreds of people creating a landmark.

Love it or hate it, in a world city this a world building. It doesn't so much symbolise globalisation as embody it - built to an Italian design by workers from Britain, Ireland, Eastern Europe, Africa and elsewhere, funded by wealth created in China and the Middle East. We could follow the chain further - the migrant workers creating the wealth in Quatar (last year 161 construction workers from Nepal alone died in Quatar), the various other parts of the world from where construction materials for the Shard were sourced... It makes the Tower of Babel look like a little local building project.

The Shard among the ruins? Will this be the sight visitors to the city will see in hundreds of years time,
like that bit in Planet of the Apes where they stumble across the Statue of Liberty?
(picture actually taken on Neckinger Street in Bermondsey, where buildings are currently being demolished)

Some have criticised the practice of projecting too many metaphors and symbolic meanings on to the Shard (e.g. see Nick Barron's comments). They have a point, but architects and developers don't build a giant glass pyramid without being very aware of its symbolic dimension, and those who see it every day on the skyline can hardly help reflecting on what meanings it conveys beyond its functional purpose.

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