London’s new best friend?

16 May 2011

Has Renzo won the hearts and minds of Londoners?

The new London Bridge tower is the talk of the town, bumped for a few days by a local wedding, it’s now back with a vengeance.

You can’t get away from it. On the train you will overhear the conversations; someone will be excitedly pointing, telling a friend about the building’s impressive stats. In the streets of the soon-to be-hip LBQ (London Bridge Quarter for those yet to catch up), busy commuters now have to weave around the army of people transfixed on the pavements pointing their mobiles up into sky in homage to the growing behemoth. Right across the city the Shard is popping up over roof lines, at the end of streets, into offices and homes across the city. Only this weekend, one UK national paper ran a huge double page spread triggered because the author Will Self could now see the Shard from his bedroom.

But what’s surprising about all this is that the normally reserved Great British public seem to have taken the building to their hearts. Ask an architect what they think of the Shard (and I do all the time) you get a stream of all the reasons why it’s wrong - too big, out of context, wrong place, wrong glass etc etc but ask a guy in the street and it’s ‘Just Awesome!’ The irony here is that British architects have probably got so used to defending modern designs in the decades since Prince Charles’ infamous carbuncle speech that they are struggling to come to terms with the possibility that the mood of the public may have swung. Maybe it’s a new post-carbuncle generation of Londoners who just think modern buildings are cool. Either way, the fact is that they’re loving it.

But is it a good thing, this mega intrusion? Walking around the streets of the LBQ the giant building dominates, it is an extraordinary sight. There is no question of context here; the entire area has now been reduced to a mere hinterland of the tower.

London Bridge has always been an ‘interesting’ part of London, anything south of the river has historically had a bit of a stigma, not being ‘real London’ (at least according those north of the river). But the vibrant Borough Market had been a constant source of energy evolving over recent years from its roots as a wholesale market to the consumer gastronomic extravaganza it will be by next year, presumably servicing the thousands of office workers from over the road. But even here, the market is having its heart ripped out as a huge railway viaduct is being constructed overhead, all part of the overhaul of London’s creaking public transport system.

The real challenge will be how successfully the Shard connects with the community it has gate-crashed. This is where it will all happen, around the skirts of the giant, where horizontal meets vertical.

How this will pan out is anyone’s guess but Piano’s words at the beginning of this epic project have never been more poignant: "Of course, I understand the suspicions of Londoners who have seen so many cynical and ugly commercial towers - hermetic buildings cut off from public life and dead at night - dominate the city over the past 40 years. How can we show this is very different? How can I say to people there, 'Trust me?’”

Michael Hammond
Editor in Chief at WAN

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