x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

'Shard of Glass' to become London's tallest tower

After the stagnation caused by the global recession, Britain's capital is soon to see a rash of buildings that will alter its skyline - starting with the 'Shard of Glass', now the tallest in the city.

The Shard, right, being built near the Thames, has surpassed Canary Wharf's One Canada Square, which held the title of London's tallest building for 18 years.
The Shard, right, being built near the Thames, has surpassed Canary Wharf's One Canada Square, which held the title of London's tallest building for 18 years.

Multi-storey towers are aggressive fortresses and symbols of arrogance that exclude the public, says the architect behind London's latest such building.

Luckily, Renzo Piano, who made his name with Paris's Pompidou Centre, changed his mind when he realised the potential of the site the property developer Irvine Sellar had assembled close to the Thames, practically on top of London Bridge station.

Next week, a decade after Mr Piano first began working with Mr Sellar, the building known as the "Shard of Glass" becomes London's tallest tower. Still under construction, it has now surpassed Canary Wharf's One Canada Square, which held the title of the capital's tallest building for 18 years.

The tower, which is substantially financed by the State of Qatar, is growing at 3 metres a week and has just passed the 235 metre mark.

From all four compass points around London the skyscraper, approved in 2003 by the then Labour government after a lengthy public inquiry, can be seen pushing its way into the skyline. When it is finished it will be the tallest tower, at 310m and 72 storeys, in western Europe, only missing out on the top spot in the continent by a Moscow protuberance.

Londoners love a tower. They christen them fondly with nicknames such as "the Gherkin" or "the Cheesegrater" that bring the designers' architectural aspirations down to earth.

After two years of a severe construction and property recession, the City of London's skyline is set to be transformed by a rash of towers.

The 46-storey Heron Tower close to Liverpool Street Station, built by the veteran developer Gerald Ronson, will be completed next year. In October, Land Securities, the UK's largest property company, and Canary Wharf Group confirmed they would begin building a 150 metre tower, known as "the Walkie-Talkie", at 20 Fenchurch Street in the City of London.

A few days later British Land, the UK's second-biggest property company, said it would restart its Cheesegrater project and a third tower, the 64-storey Pinnacle, backed by Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti money, is pushing to complete just ahead of those two in 2013.

The rush to complete these vertical villages is driven partly by an anticipated shortage of quality office space in two to three years' time, when a wave of leases, signed in 2000, will be nearing expiry.

Construction of new offices had plunged to a 30-year low in the capital in the wake of the global financial meltdown - but developers are now seizing the day.

"I've always been very confident that it will let well," says Mr Sellar. So confident is he that in June he persuaded London's transport authority, which was to have been his first tenant, to up sticks to a less salubrious part of town in the belief that he could better the £38 (Dh218.53) per square foot in rent it had agreed to pay back in 2006.

"They were never the right tenant for Europe's most iconic tower. So we agreed a deal," he says.

"We feel confident that the timing is right, confident that we will get the right quality of tenant in from the financial services sector."

Once completed in May 2012, the Shard could be worth £1.3 billion and form the centrepiece of a £2bn regeneration of the London Bridge area. It will have 586,000 sq ft of offices, a five-star Shangri-La hotel, luxury apartments, restaurants and bars.

It's notoriously difficult for developers to hit the right timing with their projects. The Shard has been 12 years in the planning and the other towers in the City of London have had similarly long gestation periods.

The fact that they are now finally under construction is being taken as an indicator that the UK's economy, at least in the capital, is getting back on its feet.

Mr Sellar observes wryly that it is nice to be leading the pack, rather than following.

But the reality is more complicated. Property investment values have already bounced back strongly following a savage slide during the downturn but there has been little real rental growth.

For Mr Sellar, developing the Shard has been a long, hard slog, "the exact opposite of a walk in the park", he says. But he is hoping for something more than record rents or a blue-chip tenant and does not shy away from the l-word: legacy.

"Look at London and ask what other building has been built since [the Second World War] that is memorable, there just isn't one," he says. Until now.