Comment: The Shard is a grotesque monument for the rich
London was always built on profit. That's why it's designed so chaotically. You only have to go to the top of the Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower to see a city which submits to government diktat. London never did, not even after the Great Fire. Its anarchy of alleyways and smog-filled roads and shops slid into corners is a testament to a city which only ever responded to the demands of profit.
So the trouble with the Shard is not simply that it is a testament to greed.
Nor is it the idea, disliked by some, that glistening new structures are positioned next to old ones. The brooding remnants of Wren's London look marvellous juxtaposed by modernity. Vital cities never fear mixing the modern with the ancient, grounding themselves in history but refusing to be trapped by it. London is, and always has been, a city of ghosts. But it has also been commendably obsessed with progress.
The problem with the Shard is that it is ugly, insecure and grotesque.
The 'lets build the tallest building' game is best left to children and the insecure. Dubai is obsessed with having the tallest building because it is not a place which really exists. It is a city literally built on sand, like some wrongheaded parable. It has a great deal to prove. Sydney throws up skyscrapers despite the plentiful space available because Australia is so deeply insecure about its importance. London never needed to. Confident cities build low because they have nothing to prove. And there is no use saying, as Ken Livingstone did on the Today programme this morning, that we have run out of space and need to build up. The building is empty. There is no demand for what it is offering.
It can't be coincidence that the deep-pocketed royal family of Qatar stepped in to finance the building – probably at a loss. They have brought with them a love of phallic transference as well as a ban on the sale of alcohol and gambling.
Like any testosterone-filled endeavour, it is subject to perpetual failure. By early next year, the Shard will have been replaced as the tallest building in Europe by the Mercury City Tower in Russia.
The building damages views of St Pauls, the Tower of London and the Palace of Westminster. English Heritage often fixates on the 'line of sight' argument in a way that seems fussy and joyless. That's not what it's about. It's about that moment that you catch sight of St Pauls and it takes your breath away. It's about the extraordinary privilege of living in London, that most monstrous and contradictory of cities. It matters.
The building's architect, Renzo Piano, calls it a vertical city. How right he is.
Vertical living has a profound effect on humans. The great socialist post-war architects built up, so as to build cheaper. They wanted decent housing for all, but no-one predicted the damage it would do to humans to place them above – rather than next to – each other. Now those huge eyesores speckle our landscape, a cruel joke when stood next to the aspirations of their creators. The old working class communities turned into something much colder and more distant. A fundamental empathy was lost. People who lived close to each other for decades never met, never learned each other's name. Crime shot up. Community shrivelled.
The precise same phenomenon happens to the rich when they adopt vertical living. High above the city, without the need to smell or see what happens to others, they become less empathetic, less caring. Like the poor, crime increases, except the crimes of the elite rarely send them to prison. It is, in peacetime, the same process which affects wartime bomber pilot. Cut off from the repercussions of their actions – from the sight of it – they grow indifferent.
The rich and poor are getting further and further away. Gated communities are growing in number, particularly around the Docklands area of London. What a surprise that they should grow there, in the beacon to capitalism which Thatcher built. With the gradual introduction of means-based benefits, the well-off will have even less investment in society. Housing benefit is being cut. The old mixture of rich and poor in London will be a thing of the past. The rich will retreat to their towers, the poor will be forced out of the wealthy areas to their slums.
The Shard is a symbol of how much further away from each other we are. It is a symbol of our new society, like Canary Wharf's Sauron-like blinking eye. And like the new society, it doesn't work. So far, the only tenant is the 195-room Shangri-La hotel, on floors 34 to 52 of the 87-storey tower. The rest lies uninhabited, more empty luxury for the elite while homelessness rises by 73% year-on-year.
The Shard is a scar on London. We should welcome it as a daily reminder of what we are doing to ourselves.
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