As I tuck into my sister’s delicious spaghetti carbonara this week (which is the most important part of the story), a whole lot of people are rejoicing at the Shard’s grand opening shindig, which had LAZERS and everything I’m told. After years of glimpsing it’s jagged edged progress from vistas all over town, the day is finally here. But something in me is uneasy about it all, and since I tamed my fierce opposition to modern buildings, I don’t think it’s that.
(I just love castles so much you see, but a visit to NYC finally provided the cure. I gave in to the fact that towering vertical lines, and shiny, reflective surfaces in large quantities can be rather beautiful. They can even fit coherently along-side proper historic buildings with art deco window ledges and the like – who’d have thought it? Btw I can’t wait to see The Great Gatsby.)
Architectural design aside for the moment, perhaps what makes me so uncomfortable is the Shard’s lack of relevance to everyday Londoners and to the needs of the local community. In a Babel-like fashion it is a monument to man’s achievement, or, more specifically, a small group of foreign investors’ achievement. It’s the mark of a stranger’s success upon the skyline and so it’s odd that we are all expected to celebrate it as if it is our own.
It also seems to exemplify an attitude towards money that is exorbitant, that nothing is too over-the-top to lavish surplus capital upon. This kind of boom spending has no doubt lead to many a recession-related job loss in the Southwark area. (Though perhaps the most extreme example of architectural inequality is to be found in Dubai, click here for a super interesting article about that.)
Interestingly, economist Andrew Lawrence has even demonstrated a link between the construction of skyscrapers and subsequent economic crises in his ‘Skyscraper Index’.
So anyway, these questions cross my mind: is it enough to trumpet awe-inspiring architectural design for it’s own sake? Or is there more to consider? My answers would be no and then yes. This is because our urban environment, no matter how pointy, isn’t separate from us like a painting on a wall. While we define it, architecture also has the tendency to define us. It limits or allows our movement, opportunities and even happiness. So it’s not only the design but also the way it orders peoples’ lives that matters.
Perhaps there are projects more worthy of jubilation then. The Ivy Street Family Centre‘s rebuild for example, will more than treble it’s capacity to provide childcare, community support services and fairy cakes in Hoxton. It will be of untold value, even if they don’t have a 300m tall glass structure on top (though that would be fun). And how about a laser show to celebrate all the social housing initiatives started this year –also with lots of cake??