Towering 1,016 feet above London, the Shard is the tallest building in Europe. It was funded by Qatar's oil-rich royal family, who say recouping their investment is not a priority.
LONDON -- Built at a cost of $2.35 billion in tough economic times, Europe's new tallest skyscraper has become a lightning rod for criticism even before it officially opens Thursday.
Rising more than 1,000 feet above London's skyline with floor space equivalent to 31.4 acres -- or close to 15 football fields -- the Shard is Europe’s boldest and most extravagant building. It was funded by Qatar's royal family, who boast pockets as deep as the tower is high.
But it’s more than just sheer size that gives the tower its swagger. The building’s design is already iconic. It’s crafted from 11,000 glass panels, which resemble shards of glass (hence, its name). They incline inwards as they rise to the top culminating in a sharp-angled jagged spire. The shards never touch and there are fissures along the way, which allow the entire structure to “breathe.”
'A vertical city'
It has has been compared to an "iceberg jutting out of the Thames River" -- not so much scraping the skyline rather cutting it through like a knife.
“It’s a vertical city,” said Renzo Piano, the acclaimed Italian architect who designed the building. A city featuring 28 floors of office space, three floors of restaurants, 10 luxury apartments spread out over 12 floors, a five-star hotel with 200 rooms and a viewing gallery on the 72nd floor, which will be open to the public. The finished structure suggests harmony, technical perfection and purity of design in architectural terms.
But try telling that to its detractors -- who say it represents arrogance, power and money as Britain grapples with a double-dip recession and austerity cuts. Critics suspect mega-rich foreigners will be the only people wealthy enough to move in.
Piano squares off with opponents of the project by arguing that he respected London’s history and inched the city’s skyline into the 21st century. “It’s on the south side of the river; it’s where London started from in the 2nd century. We are bringing energy back to this part of the city.”
He also shrugged off questions about the scale his creation at a press conference on Wednesday. “Architects shouldn’t say too much, just as singers shouldn’t explain their song before they sing,” Piano said.
As the world's 59th tallest building, there is plenty to boast about. It features 44 elevators, 306 flights of stairs and 72 occupiable floors. A further 15 levels make up its spire. The project was 12 years in the making and will be inaugurated Thursday night with great fanfare -- a spectacular light and laser show beaming across the tower to light up London’s night skies, all to the music of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
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Piano put it this way: “You will feel the building, it has a soul. It’s never the same; it’s almost like a kaleidoscope, a mirror of London.”
But will Londoners share his passion? Piano hopes people will learn to love his glass tower and adopt it as their own primarily because the building will be open to the public and won’t shut down at 6 p.m. “It will be full of life,” he said.
Critics allege that the Shard has destroyed London’s historic skyline. It dwarfs views of the Tower of London, Parliament Square and St. Paul’s Cathedral, they say.
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Reuters reported that it will open with 26 floors of vacant office space.
Sheik Abdullah al Thani, governor of Qatar’s central bank, was not worried. He said the Shard project is part of Qatar’s portfolio of London investments. Recouping their investment is not the oil-rich royal family's first priority.
“This is part of our relationship and our confidence about the London market," he explained. "To recover our investment is a minus thing for us at this moment and we look forward to recoup sometime in the future but it’s not important.”
Just one tenant
The building’s backers expect the tower to be fully rented by the end of 2014 but there is still only one committed tenant, the Shangri-La Hotel.
With stakes so high, the developers are counting on the Shard becoming a major tourist attraction like the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower. It’s no accident that the tower was completed just in time for the opening of Olympic Games.
Piano is confident he got the project right. The Shard’s backers agree. They are convinced it is the right building at the right time in the right city.
Londoners will hope they are right. As Piano points out: ”When you do something like this wrong, you are wrong for centuries.”