Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

Shard London Bridge Visit

January 23, 2011
by Antony Wood

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One of the most exciting new skyscrapers going up in Europe has to be the Shard London Bridge project, which is currently rising next to London Bridge Station and near the South bank of the River Thames. While in London, CTBUH Communications Manager / Journal Editor Jan Klerks took the opportunity to visit the future tallest building of the European Union on January 23. CTBUH’s UK Country Representative and Davis Langdon / AECOM director Steve Watts, who has been involved as a cost consultant for the project, had kindly organized the visit. Below is Jan’s report of the tour.

The history of the Shard dates back to the year 2000. The London entrepreneur Irvine Sellar had decided to redevelop Southwark Towers, a 1970s office block next to the London Bridge station. He asked the renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano to design an iconic skyscraper for this location. Inspired by the railway lines next to the site, the London spires of Venetian painter Canaletto and the sailing masts of the capital's past, Piano sketched an iceberg-like sculpture emerging from the River Thames. This design was eventually developed into a 306-meter (1,003-foot) tall irregular, triangulated-shaped building which will entirely be clad in glass. The construction of the tower started in March 2009  and the building is scheduled for completion mid 2012. When I visited the building, the concrete core had topped out at level 72, standing at 245 meters (804 feet), while the floors had reached level 34. Cladding was fully underway.

Rendering of the Shard London Bridge Shard London Bridge under construction

When presenting on the project during the 2009 Mumbai conference, I remember Steve Watts saying that the Shard ‘makes perfect sense’. And it does. Especially the main triangular shape: it works brilliantly for the tower on many levels.

Structurally a pyramid works to the advantage of the stability of the tower and the way it handles the building loads, just like the tripod design of the Burj Khalifa does. Functionally the shape allows you to stack different functions on top of each other, using their optimal window-to-space ratio; offices on floor 4 through 28, a Shangri-la hotel on floors 34 to 50, and residential apartments on floors 53 to 65. In between and on top, public amenities are planned, such as restaurants and a viewing gallery on floors 31 to 33, a spa on floor 52 and a gallery and open air observation deck on floors 68 to 72.

Work on the facade of the Shard in full swing

The lobby of the building will be situated on the first three levels, and as such it allows for connectivity with its surroundings on multiple levels. Plans are underway to landscape the entire site of the London Bridge Quarter. The design hopes to integrate the multi-level site into a usable and functional area incorporating the rail services, bus links and taxi rank in a safe, pedestrian-friendly area.

But there are also effects which you need to experience in person in order to recognize them. The triangular shape gives the building a striking, yet not a predominate presence in the London Skyline. Seen from the cocktail bar in the top of Tower 42, across from the River Thames, the construction already looks spectacular without leaning on, or dwarfing other elements in the skyline. But maybe the most spectacular effect of the pyramid shape is experienced when walking by the building.  As a mass, it doesn’t feel spectacular, but as it is disappearing into the sky it is quite nice because it is not looming over the neighborhood. This reminded me of the Empire State Building in New York City, which you can easily pass while walking on 5th avenue without noticing it because of the setbacks.

Shard London Bridge seen from Tower 42

I think that standing out as an iconic presence in a skyline without having a negative impact on street level is a distinctive quality of any tall building. Walking the area, you realize the positive impact that the Shard can have on the development of the immediate surroundings. One thing I learned from the development of the Burj Khalifa is that there is a lot of potential in developing the direct surroundings of the landmark building, as homes and offices can be marketed as ‘Burj View’. Also, the nearby presence of the landmark shines on these developments as well. 

Currently the area around the Shard doesn’t look like it has seen much happiness in recent years, but investments are already on their way. Currently, major improvements are being made to the London Bridge station, a new concourse and public piazza will be built, as well as plans for future housing and a museum. In addition, a shorter building known as London Bridge Place will be built nearby, replacing the the current London Bridge House. The combined sites will create what will be known as The London Bridge Quarter. The Shard itself replaced the now demolished Southwark Towers, a 24-story office building of 1976. Hopefully these developments are an incentive for next door’s Guy's Hospital to consider a refurbishment of the 142.6-meter (468-foot) tall tower (1973) as it looks like it could use one.

Installation in the subterranean levels Temporary facade to shield the construction workers from wind conditions

The tour of the Shard itself took us from the highest point of construction on level 34 to the deepest point of the subterranean spaces at level -4, which is where most of the installations are based. Interestingly, the Shard offers an absolute minimum amount of parking spaces, which given the location next to one of London’s largest transportation hubs, actually isn’t that surprising. After having spent five days in London, I realize now that I forgot to ask whether the Shard will have a bicycle storage facility, since to me, biking seems like the best way to get around in the city. Unfortunately not too many Londoners seem to agree with me on that.

In all, it was a great opportunity to experience the Shard in person and I’m convinced that UK’s first megatall building will have a positive effect on both the skyline of London and the streets of Southwark. I would like to thank Steve Watts of Davis Langdon / AECOM for organizing this tour in cooperation with Mace Construction, and I hope to be able to visit the building again soon after it will be completed. 

Annex under construction against the backdrop of the tower of Guy's Hospital Shard going up!