All day, every day, pedestrians stop on a temporary footbridge leading from London Bridge station to Guyâ€™s Hospital and stare in wonder at the vast hole, the size of 25 Olympic swimming pools, that has opened up below them.
The great, noisy, floodlit pit swarms with workers in fluorescent jackets. It bristles with cranes, excavators and jackhammers. And from its centre, on scores of piles sunk deeper than Nelsonâ€™s Column and each as thick as two oak trees, protrudes the core of what will soon be Europeâ€™s tallest building.
Credit crunch and critics notwithstanding, the Shard is rising â€” and it is some â€œgreen shootâ€. From now on, its steel and concrete skeleton will grow by nearly two storeys a week. Soon it will tower over Guyâ€™s, Borough Market and poor old Southwark Cathedral. By late 2011 it will reach 1,016 ft (310 m), dominating Londonâ€™s skyline and dwarfing Canary Wharf (771 ft), the Gherkin (590 ft) and every other landmark in the capital.
Designed by Renzo Piano, the Italian architect, it would have been taller still, 1,450 ft, had the Civil Aviation Authority not imposed the 1,000 ft limit. â€œWe got away with the extra 16 because weâ€™re on lower ground,â€ Irvine Sellar, the market-stall holder turned property magnate behind the Â£1.4 billion project, says with a chuckle.
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When completed in May 2012, the Shard will be a â€œvertical cityâ€ with the 12 highest apartments in the UK, a five-star hotel, offices, restaurants, bars and shops. More than 12,000 people will work there and in the 17storey â€œBaby Shardâ€ next door. The four floors of public galleries will have views of the South Downs, the Channel or France â€” depending on which promotional claim you believe.
Where nine glass facades that encase the Shard meet in a splintered pinnacle, there will be a â€œcontemplation roomâ€.
The 87-storey Shard will contain 17,000 tons of steel, 54,000 cubic metres of concrete and 56,000 square metres of glass â€” all on a footprint of one acre. It will have 44 lifts, two running from top to bottom, and 306 flights of stairs.
But there will be only 48 parking spaces. This is because it will stand atop new London Bridge bus and train stations served by six rail lines, two Tube lines and 15 bus routes. During the construction, a monitoring team is constantly watching for ground movements that could shift the railway lines a ruinous millimetre, or for vibrations that could disrupt the sensitive electron microscopes in Guyâ€™s.
The Shard has plenty of critics. English Heritage calls it â€œa spike through the heart of historic Londonâ€. Simon Jenkins, the National Trust chairman and newspaper columnist, calls it â€œa relic of Ken Livingstoneâ€™s desperate bid to imitate Manhattan or Dubai, a thundering great icon to the debt mountain plonked down in Southwarkâ€™s still intimate streetscape like a phallus from capitalist outer spaceâ€.
But its proponents see it as a symbol of the capitalâ€™s recovery â€” concrete (and glass) proof of the cityâ€™s world-class status. They say that it will regenerate the run-down heart of old London, and that building the city upwards means it need not spread outwards: â€œtall not sprawlâ€.
It is a â€œtangible example of how the capital is powering its way out of the recession,â€ Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, says. It â€œis a clear and inspiring example of confidence in the capitalâ€™s economyâ€.
His predecessor, Mr Livingstone, has predicted that the Shard â€œwill be for London what the Empire State Building is for New Yorkâ€. Mr Sellar proclaims that it will be a â€œsymbol for London that will last for centuriesâ€. He quickly adds: â€œAt least two.â€
For Mr Sellar, 70, the Shard is the culmination of what he calls a â€œvery long journeyâ€. He was raised in North London, left school at 16, opened a market stall in St Albans at 17, sold flared jeans on Carnaby Street in the Swinging Sixties, and built up the Mates fashion chain. Retail led to property development. He went bust in the crash of 1990, but bounced back and is now worth Â£210 million, according to The Sunday Times Rich List. He lives in Mayfair and drives a black Rolls- Royce with the number plate BUY 1S.
Mr Sellar bought Southwark Towers, an ugly 1970s office block that the Shard will replace, for Â£37 million in 1998. Mr Piano produced a design based, he says, on the church spires and tall ship sails of Canalettoâ€™s 18th-century London. They applied for planning permission only months after the destruction of the World Trade Centre, which, says Mr Sellar, â€œvery nearly scuppered itâ€ â€” the Shard will have â€œrefugesâ€ built into its core.
The plan scraped past the council, but then faced a public inquiry where conservation groups led by English Heritage claimed that it would usurp St Paulâ€™s Cathedral, the Tower of London and Londonâ€™s skyline. John Prescott, then Deputy Prime Minister, finally granted approval in November 2003 because the proposed tower was â€œof the highest architectural qualityâ€.
Two of Mr Sellarâ€™s partners dropped out. He lined up finance from Credit Suisse, but the credit crunch put paid to that. Finally, a consortium of Qatari banks rode to the rescue and now has an 80 per cent stake in the project. â€œThere were many, many moments when I thought we might not make it,â€ Mr Sellar says.
Even now people say that he is crazy to proceed in a recession. Comparable projects, including the â€œCheesegraterâ€ and the â€œWalkie Talkieâ€, have been put on hold. Office building in London is at its lowest level in 30 years. Commercial rents have halved. But where others see gloom, he sees opportunity. When the Shard is finished, he argues, the recession will be over and London will be desperately short of highly regarded new office space. â€œYou succeed in spite of people, never with their help,â€ he tells the naysayers. â€œOur confidence is absolute.â€
The Shard certainly excites those looking from the footbridge. â€œItâ€™s amazing, fantastic,â€ Angus Murray, a travel agent who comes daily to watch its progress, says. â€œThere was loads of controversy about the Gherkin but people love it now. This will be the same.â€
â€œItâ€™s going to do the area a lot of good,â€ Alyson Parker, a PA at Guyâ€™s, says. But, she adds: â€œItâ€™ll make the hospital look like a matchbox.â€
The pre-let to Transport for London and a hotel certainly did no harm to its chances of success.