Would Shard critics once have slammed the Eiffel Tower?

In: Daniel In The News

5 Jul 2012

This is a comment by me on the Guardian’s comment is free website

As the tallest building in Europe it dwarfs the others in the capital. Its distinctive style stands at odds with the historical buildings in the city centre. Prominent writers complained about its construction but the city’s inhabitants have generally come to love it.

This description is not of London’s Shard, but of the Eiffel Tower. When it was opened in 1889 it was far more radical for its time than the Shard is today. Nothing like it, in stature or in its revolutionary iron construction, had ever been built before. Yet it quickly became the iconic symbol of Paris.

Admittedly, the title for Europe’s highest tower is open for debate. At 308 metres the Shard is widely quoted as now being the tallest building in Europe. But while the main body of the Eiffel Tower is only 300 metres tall, it stands at 324 metres once you add the base and television antenna.

What is not at issue is that both buildings are relatively small compared with the world’s highest skyscrapers. The tallest of all at present, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, is 828 metres high. The Shard – at 310 metres – only makes it to 59th on the global list with most of the giants located in east Asia and the Arabian peninsula.

Against this backdrop the extreme conservatism of the Shard’s critics should be apparent. They complain about its scale, the way it symbolises inequality and – horror of horrors – that it is largely owned by foreigners.

It is true that the Shard is strikingly larger and different in design from many of London’s traditional icons. In their time St Paul’s Cathedral and Tower bridge no doubt also stood out against older buildings. Yet to thrive cities need to be living, breathing institutions rather than fossilised organisms.

Many recent additions to the capital have quickly become a welcome part of the scenery. As Karl Sharro, a London-based Lebanese architect who has been involved in many projects in the Middle East, has written: “The Gherkin, the London Eye, and the Millennium Dome [now named The O2] have not only displayed ambitious architecture and cutting-edge technology but have quickly become symbols of London.” Soon they are to be joined by several more tall buildings including 20 Fenchurch Street (the “Walkie-Talkie”), 122 Leadenhall Street (the “Cheese Grater”), the Bishopsgate Tower (the “Pinnacle”) and 100 Bishopsgate.

As for inequality, it is no doubt true that the Shard will be an exclusive building but that is hardly unique. How many ordinary couples get married in Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s Cathedral? How many grand residences are open to the public? If this logic were followed consistently there would be far fewer striking buildings in London or anywhere else.

To the extent that social divisions can be tackled through construction the answer is surely more not less. Not only opening up existing architecturally impressive buildings to the public but building many more. The larger the number of innovative constructions the more the public will have access to them.

Indeed a group of architects and others have recently created a detailed scale model of a Mile High Tower that would soar to 1,600 metres and could well be a solution to London’s housing shortage. As the capital’s population grows, through natural increase and immigration, it could provide many people with decent housing.

Yet even residential buildings on this scale are not new in principle. As far back as 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the world’s greatest architects, presented his plans for Mile High Illinois. Only with modern techniques and materials could such a hugely ambitious building be easier to achieve than in his time.

The anxiety about the Shard and other ambitious skyscrapers reflects a deep anxiety about progress. Rather than nervously cling on to earlier achievements it would be far better to reach for a bolder future.