Setting the tone for the city

10 Jul 2012

Renzo Piano makes his mark on London as The Shard of Glass is inaugurated

As an architect, engineer, developer or quite frankly the owner of any device with access to the internet, it is more than likely that you have been inundated with scores of articles relaying the story of Renzo Piano's latest completed project. The Shard of Glass reaches high into the clouds above London Bridge Quarter and last week celebrated its official inauguration with a light show that promised to be a dramatic climax to this record-breaking development.

WAN watched the laser show from Tower Bridge and although the air was electric in the lead up to the illuminations and it appeared that most of London had come to a standstill to cast its gaze skyward, it must be said that the effects fell slightly short of spectacular. Social media sites and trusted publications spared no time in relaying the shortcomings of the light show - which was accompanied by an impressive score from the London Philharmonic Orchestra - but it is imperative that the industry does not lose sight of the architecture for the sake of a few ill-performing lasers.

The Shard is not to everyone's taste. Some have questioned its impact on the London skyline, berating it's interjection in an otherwise largely uninterrupted low-rise area of London. Others have argued the need for a building so obviously excessive in a country where the financial crisis has negatively affected the lives of many. And some simply don't like the contemporary glass and steel design. One thing none can deny however is the skill of design and engineering that has gone into realising this colossal building.

Built both upwards and downwards at the same time, The Shard rose in an astonishing display of construction ingenuity. As the building's concrete core rose above London until it topped out in early 2011, 72 floors into the air, the basement levels were also being excavated below. This is the number of occupiable floors within The Shard, 31.4 acres of prime commercial, residential and hotel space hovering over one of the busiest stations in the city, with pilings sunken 62m into Thanet sand to support its incredible weight. Once the fit-out is complete and the tower opens in spring 2013, there will be 44 elevators and 78 habitable levels in The Shard.

So tall was the construction project (309.6m/1,016ft) that it was impossible for conventional cranes to successfully complete the task. As a result, some ingenious thinking saw what would eventually become the central lift shaft transformed into a holding device for one of the cranes. The crane was suspended in a specially-designed cradle connected to hydraulic jacks with steel rods which pushed the crane upwards as the core grew. It was the first time that this construction method was employed in the UK.

There is no faulting the delivery of Renzo Piano's vision. Whether you find its presence unnecessary or even ugly, there can be no doubt that the architect's concept was carried out to the letter. When the double envelope of 11,000 glass panels catches the light it dazzles the onlooker in a way only Piano could have imagined. We've seen this achievement of harnessing light before in Ronchamp and at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum but at The Shard the immensity of scale reaches another level. This effect is captured by employing two facades offset from square plan inclined six degrees from vertical. The envelope also acts as a triple-glass cavity-ventilated design with sun-activated automated shutters in 250mm gap.

For engineers WSP, innovative thinking was required to bring this towering beast to life. The team created a hybrid form consisting of composite steel construction at commercial levels and post-tensioned slab construction at hotel and residential levels. London is a city highly attuned to terrorist threats and tall towers of this nature are designed with a series of safety mechanisms in place as standard. For The Shard this means state-of-the-art blast protection and structural fire engineering design, whilst intelligent engineering such as the arrangement of concrete mass at the top levels to reduce the form's acceleration during high wind acts as a day-to-day safety precaution.

One publication ran a headline several days ago where an architect was berating Renzo Piano for his concept of The Shard, using the term 'monster' and suggesting that he should be ‘locked up in the Tower of London’. As mentioned before, everyone has their opinion of The Shard and the effect that it will eventually have on the capital but it's worth recognising the first words out of Renzo Piano's mouth at the official press conference last Wednesday: "As the architect I should not say too much." Perhaps like Piano it’s time we let the architecture speak for itself.

Sian Disson
News Editor

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