The Shard and the uprise of the ‘Vertical City’

I’m in London most weeks and have watched The Shard, designed by Renzo Piano, emerge at an incredible pace. Its been built in around 36 months! I really like this building. The external envelope is largely complete now and will be finished for an ‘opening’ ceremony early July (in time for the Olympics). Clearly the internal fit-out work is still underway. The physical scale of this building is phenomenal, especially when you are stood next to it. The height is clearly striking, but so too is the width of the building at its base – due to its shape. It stands on top of a railway/ underground station and rises to 310 metres (1,020 ft) providing 95 floors. Its the tallest ‘building’ in the European Union and, oddly, the ‘second’ tallest free standing structure in the UK – The Emley Moor transmitting station in West Yorkshire stands at 330m and will remain the tallest! The Shard was actually reduced in height due to Civil Aviation Requirements. Importantly, for me, The Shard will have a public viewing gallery near the top. You can see the 360 view from the top already – click here.

I think the Shard is a superb building and another strong statement for London and the UK on the global scene. No doubt it will quickly become a tourist magnet for visitors and promote London’s brand (like other significant buildings do). This reinforces the real value and importance of Architecture. I do think that tall buildings define a place and massively influence the City experience on a human level. Tall buildings give places an “exclamation mark” as Boris Johnson said when describing The ArcelorMittal Orbit at the Olympic village in Stratford. This building (?) for me is a disappointment. Proof perhaps that ‘Art’ and ‘Architecture’ can co-exist but rarely, if at all, work as one unified object? Anish Kapoor has undertaken some great commissions like Cloud Gate in Chicago and the Sky Mirror seen in Nottingham, London, Monaco, New York and Russia. Personally I don’t think Orbit has been a success. Kapoor’s frustration with realising this building was evident in the recent ‘Into Orbit’ documentary on the BBC.

I have always been fascinated by tall buildings. Often when visiting a new city its a great way to familiarise yourself with the surroundings. I remember visiting the CN Tower in Toronto back in 1997 and I think this was probably my first experience of a really tall structure. Since then I’ve been up numerous tall buildings in Europe, Australia, America and Japan. Japan was a little disappointing because of the dense brown smog! Tokyo’s latest offering is the Skytree – the tallest ‘tower’ in the world. It seems to resemble Blackpool Tower to me. The tallest ‘building’ in the world is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. It cost US$1.5 billion to build, stands at 829.84 m (2,723 ft) and has 163 floors. I’m looking forward to seeing this when I spend a couple of days in Dubai for meetings in a couple of weeks. My personal favorite tall building in Dubai and (and perhaps the world still) is the Burj Al Arab, designed by British Architect Tom Wright. I’m looking forward to seeing this too.

Tall Buildings are Hot Property globally, despite the tough economic times. “In 2011, 88 new towers over 200 meters (656 ft.) high were built in the world – a record number, compared to the 32 new towers built in 2005. There are another 96 new towers slated for completion this year, with China being the biggest builder” according to Business Insider. The Council on Tall Building and Urban Habitat, based in Chicago, have also recently named their 2012 Award Winners for Tall Buildings.

A previous Architect colleague at Lewis and Hickey, Andrew Talbot, has recently worked on designs for Sydney’s tallest tower at Kann Finch in Australia. Andrew has been a key role model in my career development and helped me through some challenging times while I was at University – A great friend and hugely respected colleague.

So back to London – the hub for tall buildings in the UK. The history of London’s ‘tall’ buildings is relatively recent in reality. The first recorded tallest structure was the 27-metre (90 ft) White Tower, a part of the Tower of London, in 1098. St. Paul’s Cathedral (both versions of) have also been London’s tallest building(s) for many years. There have really only been a dozen or so Tall buildings between then and the now due to strict regulations being imposed in 1894 (coincidentally the year L&H was founded). The BT Tower, Centrepoint, The Natwest Tower and more recently Canary Wharf have been notable structures from the 1960’s onwards. In 2003 The Gherkin (30 St. Mary Axe/ Swiss Re) was completed and became a landmark for London – and considered a new kind of tower in design terms. Its a great building and one that I have been fortunate enough to experience inside on a number of occasions. But only in the last 10 years or so have we seen an emerging uprise of genuinely Tall buildings – and it seems set to continue…

The Shard is not alone in London, many other tall buildings are on site/ in the pipeline. These all have some great names too, there’s; The Cheese Grater (Leadenhall Street), The Walkie Talkie (Fenchurch Street), The Pinnacle (Bishopsgate Tower) to name just a few. Full details of London’s existing and proposed tall buildings can be seen here.

Outside of London, I’ve talked before about the Beetham Tower in Manchester, another city I spend a lot of time in! Driving into Manchester, from seemingly every direction, The Beetham/ Hilton tower is always central to your view – in Manchester it is a real exclamation mark. I think it gives prominence and importance to the City.

Lewis and Hickey have experience in Tall Buildings. We’ve delivered several schemes of circa 20 storeys and have just submitted a Planning Application for a 16 storey scheme in the South. We have also designed a tower in Dublin a few years ago – and the Client was U2! This is the scheme…So what can I conclude from my fascination in Tall Buildings and all the activity with these structures at present? Well, it would appear that the ‘uprise of the Vertical city’ is set to become more and more common, albeit in major global cities at present. But perhaps its only a matter of time before regional cities in the UK aspire towards making a statement also? I think this would be good. The Challenge is to design something different/ unique every time!…and also ensure that people can access the top to admire the great views.

3 thoughts on “The Shard and the uprise of the ‘Vertical City’”

  1. Hi Nick, great post. I’m currently based in London and am fascinated by watching these tall towers go up, if you’re ever in the City it’s definitely worth having a look at the ‘Cheesegrater’ and ‘Walkie Talkie’ going up, very different structures but both very interesting as they begin to take on their form.

    Have you seen much of the Tall Buildings work that they’re doing down the road from you at the University of Nottingham? Their research and design programme was started several years ago by Antony Wood who is now Executive Director for the CTBUH in Chicago. Each year a Diploma/MArch studio group along with some long-term research students look at the issues surrounding tall buildings, sustainability, integration with their surroundings, the creation of vertical cities, etc. that I was very much reminded of by your article. The programme produces some great schemes each year that are always worth a look, hopefully some of them are published on the web somewhere.

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