The morning’s cloud, slow and greasy, did not bode well. By lunch time, however, the thick drizzle had melted away; later still, as I crossed London Bridge, weaving through the commuters streaming out of the City and over the river, the West End sat under pinky blue skies. The light to the east was peachy and my target, the Shard, was burnished to a warm apricot.
I have fallen out with people over the Shard. There is a complacent liberal orthodoxy now that the building is an insult to the city, an overbearing one-fingered salute from the rich and privileged, from our callous overlords. Its architecture is ‘bombastic’, ‘intrusive’, ‘ungracious’. Yet these critiques of form never seem far from a railing against the socio-economic context in which that form sits.
I occasionally attempt to point out that the socio-economic foundations of every significant building in the capital are similarly suspect, that to judge St Pancras Station Buildings on the basis of its projection of power, wealth and exclusivity would be similarly negative and similarly pointless. But there is a particular hatred for the Shard, an excessive vitriol from friends who simply don’t like the Shard.
Of course, not liking it is fine. We all make subjective, aesthetic judgements all the time. I personally love the National Theatre and hate the façade of St Pancras Station: since the Eurostar moved in, I have moderated my opinion somewhat, but I still find the building’s profile bombastic and over bearing. An American friend of mine, a proper New York Londonophile, hates the London Eye, which she sees as an arriviste imposition that infantilises a city she loves. I disagree. Horses for courses.
As with the Eye, I find the Shard gracious and elegant. I like the way that it changes our perception of the city, that our understanding of east and west, of the flow of the Thames, is modified, corrected by its presence. Its omnipresence. I love the fact that in any given street in any part of this sprawling metropolis, you can turn a corner and there it is, framed by the familiar street you are on.
So a trip to the top, even at the exorbitant admission price, was something to be savoured. What you get for your £25 is two very speedy lift rides, some of the most highly polished, highly scripted customer service this side of the Atlantic, and then that view.
We’d arrived at 6pm (the 5pm tickets, timed for sunset, had sold out) and the pinkish-orange of the western sky was quickly turning to dusty peach. Dirty contrails smeared the sky, and the lights of the city were coming on.
We moved quickly up from the ‘inside’ viewing gallery to the ‘outside’ gallery on the 72nd floor. Still enclosed by glass, this level is in amongst the crags of the Shard’s glassy crown, and some of the building’s structure is revealed. Certainly, the irregular angles of the external planes become if not intelligible then certainly manageable towards the apex.
It was getting properly dark, and the internal reflections of the glazing made taking photographs tricky, even with a polarising filter in place. Out to Westminster, the red ring of the London Eye seemed ghostly, almost superimposed, a solar flare, simply a reflection, rather than a real thing. The Palace of Westminster looked puny, insignificant; far beyond it, a thin line of lights signalled the incessant departures from Heathrow. Closer, curious planes passed on their way to City Airport, and I fought the temptation to wave, like a child by the railway tracks.
In the deepening darkness, the greatest city in the world sparkled around us. North across the river, London took on a Bladerunner aspect. The cluster of City towers – the NatWest, the Gherkin, the Heron, as well as the burgeoning Walkie Talkie and Cheesegrater – looked cramped and menacing.
Over in the distant east, the Canary Wharf cluster winked and blinked like stock footage in a film, as if shot from a helicopter. But, looking straight down – to the Tower and City Hall, to London Bridge Station, to Borough Market – you were reminded both of your altitude and of the specificity of your location, of its connectedness: below, at the foot of the tower, tiny trains took commuters back to the suburbs that stretched out into the distance.
As the trains rattled off to Sydenham or Bromley or wherever they were bound, I wondered if their weary cargo, catching a glimpse of the Shard’s slender form, might sense some connection with their city through its needle-point and might, just might, feel like waving to me.