The city’s once-familiar skyline has a newcomer glinting out of it — a soaring spire of glass and steel that will soon house pricey homes, offices and hotels.

Love it or hate it, it’s hard to be indifferent towards the Shard, the 309.6-metre high spire of glass and steel that now stands on London’s southern bank, near London Bridge station. For one thing, it is Western Europe’s tallest building (it cannot claim the European crown, as Moscow is soon set to unveil the 332-metre Mercury City Tower) and has changed the skyline of London irrevocably. Look down south from any of north London’s famous vantage points (such as Parliament Hill in grassy Hampstead, or Primrose Hill), or pretty much anywhere on high ground for that matter, and suddenly the once-familiar skyline has a new alien piece glinting out of it.

Its towering, modern cathedral-spire-like presence hasn’t pleased everyone: heritage organisations have been critical as it’s fairly close to landmarks such as the Tower of London and St Paul’s Cathedral, and as it’s set apart from the city’s other skyscraper clusters. Other objections have targeted a more fundamental point. Built largely with money from Qatar, at an estimated cost of Rs 3,020 crore, and set to host offices, restaurants, pricey residences and a five-star Shangri-La hotel, to some it represents the extent to which the city had, and continues to be, in thrall to international money and the world of high finance. A world away from the London that most of its millions inhabit.

Still, there’s an undeniable draw to mega projects such as the Shard — and it was certainly enough to draw one PhD graduate called Bradley Garrett, and a group of fellow “place hackers” to brave a freezing February night, and 76 storeys of stairs, to break into and scale the Shard’s very top. His extraordinary photographs proved an online sensation, as did his vivid descriptions of the new perspective it lent London, transforming the city into a “giant urban circuit board”.

‘A new district’

Sadly, the day of my visit turned out to be a very typical one of this summer, and one which visitors to the Olympic Games are now all too familiar with: overcast and drizzly. However, that didn’t deter our enthusiastic hosts, who included Irvine Sellar, the property developer behind the project. He describes it as “a vertical city” and a “new district of London”. These descriptions don’t seem entirely out of place, given that there are a whopping 31.4 acres of floor space, and 22 Olympic swimming pools worth of concrete. The project, he tells me, dates back to 2000, when the British government issued a white paper calling for the development of high-density building near big transport hubs — something that entirely changed his perspective on a plot of land his firm had bought shortly before. He sees it as part of the ongoing shift of the heart of London back eastwards to where it had originated (London Bridge was where the Romans had their first crossing into the city).

Early plans had conceived of something even taller (up to 400 metres) though restrictions from the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority put paid to that idea.

Views and ‘experiences’

Though the building was inaugurated with a flashy laser show early in July, it is only the exteriors that are fully complete — much of the interior remains a building site. We’re whisked up in a lift, still papered up, but which we’re told will be “kaleidoscopic” — exactly what this means is left to our imagination, as they’re not willing to explain just yet. Changing halfway up to another lift, the anticipation starts to build — there’s something about the prospect of having a vantage point like no other that thrills me! We step into a hall and mount a set of stairs to the building’s 69th floor, with its floor-to-ceiling windows all round (the building has 11,000 panels of glass, shipped all the way from Germany). Visitors will eventually be able to go even higher, to the 72nd level, and stand between some of the “shards” of glass that give the building its name, and which are partly exposed to the elements. “You’ll be able to feel the wind and hear the noises of the city,” our guide promises us.

The London we see stretching 360 degrees around us is just as magnificent as the place hackers’ pictures hinted — if a bit less colourful, under grey skies. London Bridge station below looks like a toy-train set, with spindly tracks fanning out of it and the tiniest-looking trains chugging in and out.

It’s also a very different take on the city, I realise, to the one I’m used to seeing from many London vantage points: less historical, more urban — there’s Tower Bridge with its Olympic loops just below, and the collection of skyscrapers in “the City” — London’s financial district, and, of course, the Thames winding past. All of which are far more prominent on the skyline than iconic sites such as the London Eye or the Houses of Parliament.

Interactive London

There are a lot of unfamiliar buildings too, old and new, which visitors will be able to learn about. A major part of this visitor’s section will be about an “experience” beyond the views, we’re told. There would be digital telescopes all round that allow you to zoom in and click on buildings to glean more, as well as other yet-to-be-revealed interactive tools to tell visitors, Londoners and tourists alike, less-known sides of the city — its history, development and communities.

Sellar says he hopes the viewpoint will become the first destination on a tourist’s agenda for essential London, and certainly the London Eye may have reasons to be fearful of the competition. Still, visiting the viewing point of the Shard won’t be cheap: adults will pay £24.95 (Rs 2,200) a head, and £18.95 a child (Rs 1,650) — a high price tag even in pricey London, and certainly for many of its residents. I ask Sellar whether there are plans to include local community participation — a question that seems to puzzle him. “We are engaged in the community. After all, this is the City,” he says.

(This article was published on August 2, 2012)
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