Open for business
Almost every time he opens his gob, Simon Jenkins makes me want to tear up my membership of the National Trust. He’s done it again this week in his piece for the Guardian, dynamiting the Shard on the day it opens. The Shard has, he claims, ‘slashed the face of London forever’.
Now, I know Jenkins earns a living by writing down forceful opinions for money. Not by building, or designing, or creating wealth or representing people. I know I shouldn’t get all worked up. But to me, the Shard is a thing of incomparable beauty, which will come to symbolise London in the twenty-first century, just as surely as St Paul’s symbolises the seventeenth. When Wren built St Paul’s, it was to replace the old cathedral built by medieval craftsmen and masons in the gothic style. It had a tall spire and cloisters, like a Cambridge college. Wren’s masterpiece, with its baroque dome, could not have been more different. We can only imagine the harrumphing of Jenkins’ ancestors as they kvetched about the height of the dome, how it spoilt the view from Hampstead Heath, and how they wished the old gothic spire was still there.
Until our own times, St Paul’s dominated the skyline of London. It became a symbol of defiance during the Blitz on London, when Churchill diverted crews from other fires to save the cathedral from burning down once again. The point is that what was once controversial for reasons of architecture, taste or religion, became a much-loved and accepted part of London. The same is true of every major building ever since: the Houses of Parliament, the Gherkin, the NatWest Tower, Canary Wharf or the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden, which in all seriousness is one of the best buildings in London. Consider the Millennium Dome – once a laughing stock, now the most successful concert venue in Europe.
Londoners have Labour to thank for the Shard. During Labour’s time in office London, along with the other major cities, enjoyed a social and economic revival. It is reflected in the new city centres and statement buildings such as the Beetham Tower in Manchester. It was Labour ministers who signed off on the Shard in the teeth of opposition from the Royal Parks and English Heritage. Prince Charles called it a ‘salt cellar’. Yet thanks to the enlightened views of Labour ministers, and overseas investors who believe that London is more than a heritage theme park, the Shard is open for business.
It’s not just that it’s the tallest building in Europe, or that it boasts the only flats in London with a sea view, or that its eco-friendly cooling system has done away with traditional aircon, or that the surrounding area of Southwark will get a welcome boost with new social housing and public spaces. It’s more about what it says about who we are. It speaks of confidence and modernity, of a willingness to do bold things and make brave statements. Its values are about the future, not looking backwards. I’m no reckless modernist. I give a silent prayer of thanks to John Betjeman for saving St Pancras every time I pass by, just as I curse the trendy planners who knocked down half of Bloomsbury’s Georgian terraces to impose the horrors of the Brunswick Centre. I despise the soulless, thoughtless, heartless tower blocks, shopping precincts and flyovers that passed for ‘modern’ in the 1960s and 1970s; I’m pleased that many of them are being knocked down.
But the Shard is not an Arndale Centre or Hammersmith flyover. It speaks a different language. In a week when the British army is being reduced to what its former chief calls a ‘defence force’, when our banks are being downgraded, and our country seems so small and irrelevant, the Shard sings a different song.
Guardian, Labour, London, Paul Richards, planning, the Shard