Thursday, 5 July 2012

36 views of Mount Shard

Today sees the official inauguration of the Shard. Rather than cutting ribbons, this will involve lasers cutting the night air, picking out other London landmarks. Whether this is meant to symbolise architectural solidarity or Nuremburg-style triumphalism is not clear, but the main purpose is presumably a sales pitch for the as-yet unlet offices and apartments. The Shard, by virtue of its size, target clientele and foreign funding, is a handy emblem for the state of the capital.

In yesterday's Guardian, Simon Jenkins laid out the critics' case. While some of this was sound ("money trumping planning", though 'twas ever thus), some of it was just hysterical: "the Shard has slashed the face of London forever". This is a bad case of bonkers metaphor. The Shard is less like a razorboy's calling card and more like a unicorn horn. Perhaps he meant that the Shard itself is a razor, left sticking out of someone's forehead. Nope, still doesn't work.

Jenkins is the chairman of the National Trust, so you'd expect him to harp on about the organic unity of the London skyline: everything in its proper place, well-ordered and well-mannered. Preferably people as well as buildings. However, his nostalgia over the cityscape of Canaletto conveniently ignores almost 300 years of industrial and commercial development, including such skyline-dominating monstrosities (now well-regarded) as Bankside and Battersea power stations. No doubt there were many in the mid-19th century who cited Canaletto's view of London as they regretted all that ugly, modern Victorian architecture. Jenkin's regrets that the Shard will ruin the view from Parliament Hill and Primrose Hill, without noting that the best views on the latter are from the top floors of Victorian terraced houses that now retail for millions.

Planning and architecture always has a class dimension. This point has come out very clearly in the excellent BBC series, The Secret History of Our Streets, which incidentally opens with an image of a dark, ugly Victorian city. Class has been centre stage in terms of misguided planning (well-meaning middle class planners poorly serving working class communities) and the process whereby streets "go up" or "go down" in terms of social class, a largely one-way movement in the modern era of gentrification. The recent episode on Portland Road in Notting Hill was particularly good at the starkness of the class divide and the by turns hilarious and depressing lack of interest or understanding between either end of the street. As one of the council tenants noted, it's as if there is an invisible barrier, a sense you get in many parts of London.

In last night's episode about Reverdy Road in Bermondsey, just down the road from the Shard, one of the older residents noted that the council had effectively followed a sons and daughters policy for council housing during much of the latter part of the 20th century, though he suggested this should be seen as intentionally parochial rather than de facto racist. Today the "respectable working class" of the road are being supplanted by middle-class incomers, rather than ethnic minorities, and are making a tidy packet in the process having bought their houses from the council in the 80s. The resident also noted that the council policy was strongly supported by Bob Mellish, the then Labour MP and a resonant name in recent London history. He was a social conservative, bluntly unsympathetic to anti-racism. Together with his vice chairmanship of the LDDC, this brought conflict with his constituency party as it became younger and more left-wing in the 70s. The result was the bitter 1983 by-election in which Peter Tatchell lost to Simon Hughes.

Mellish's failure to build alliances between the old and new working class, not to mention his facilitation of the Docklands property boom, was of a piece with the gradual social fragmentation of London that started in the 70s. Simon Jenkins' claim that the Shard is out of place assumes a unity in the city that has been lacking for decades now. A walk down Bermondsey Street, away from the Shard, is a good example of this. As it happens, I made this walk yesterday as part of a much larger perambulation around the big pointy building. For purely whimsical reasons, I decided to take 36 photos from different vantage points, in homage to the Japanese artist Hokusai's 36 Views of Mount Fuji.

The full series is here.

Up close the building dwarfs the nearby Guy's Hospital and City Hall, yet it doesn't feel quite as intimidating as you might expect, perhaps because it's so incongruous and sci-fi that you wonder whether it may just be CGI trickery. As you walk away, it quickly shrinks until you struggle to locate it on the horizon in Kennington, a mile and a half to the south.

Most people live their lives at ground level, and rarely get a complete vista of the London skyline, which is another reason why Simon Jenkins' complaints sound a little de haut en bas. As Bermondsey found, trying to defend against change can have the ironic effect of facilitating other, equally profound change. Perhaps in years to come we'll develop an affection for the Shard, like Parisians and the Tour Montparnasse, or perhaps we'll simply decapitate it, lopping off the luxury apartments and hotel on the upper floors, leaving a dead ringer for the Ministry of Truth.

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