This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.
Last Thursday, after 12 years of contestation, planning and construction, London reclaimed its dominant place in the international taxonomy of (post-) phallic architecture as the Shard was officially pronounced “the tallest building in Western Europe”. Rising cocksure on the South side of the Thames from the ‘feminine’ curves of ‘The Gherkin’ (in Gallic patois, “le suppositoire”), Britain’s capital ceremoniously re-gendered itself for the Olympic stage. In a liturgy of lasers and supermodels held together by the postcolonial adhesive of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the city was reborn in the sharp, thrusting body of a dynamic, entrepreneurial spike. Or at least it was if you were unfortunate enough as I to witness the moment in the incessant rain that threatens to turn London into the Los Angeles of Blade Runner.
Surveying the spectacle was the owner: London’s tallest landlord Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr Al-Thani. The jowly-faced Prime Minister of Qatar posed with dignified regality and a toothy smile. Behind him, just out of the limelight, was Prince Andrew, the Duke of York whose covert charge, with the bumbly charisma of the ex-serviceman, was to ensure that the whole thing remained ‘properly British’. Expenses scandals and flagrant displays of wealth were brushed quietly aside as this strange pair strode around cordially in a parodic performance of public relations.
And the result was well-calculated: the British establishment was made to seem that little bit ‘cooler’ while the auctioning-off of sovereignty was greeted by the Telegraph as a national triumph. As ever, Twitter provided a more varied narrative. The expected seditious puns – “Seriously, shardenfreude” (@Pierrehawkes) - were interspersed with vague allusions to terrorism and the occasional hashfelt defense via the viral retweet “I love the #shard”. Particularly striking was the universally choleric reaction to Thursday’s announcement that the viewing platform would charge an entry fee of £25, so at odds with Sellar Property’s press release: "The Shard is an iconic addition to the capital's skyline and will be one that all of London can access and enjoy”.
The modest price of the apartments, starting at an accessible £30 million, will indeed privilege the owners-to-be, who can draw on the immortal words of Guy de Maupassant who, when defending his regular attendance at a brasserie in the Eiffel Tower, remarked: "It's the only place in Paris where I don't have to see it." Yet peering inside from the rain-streaked glass of London Bridge station, the interior is similarly impervious to ‘access and enjoyment’. All that is visible is a sparse wooden reception desk and an escalator guarded by stern individuals in well-pressed suits. Where are the frescos of the Milanese Galleria? The postmodern riposte to the Creation of Adam? The bronze effigy of Bob Diamond?
Back in April this haut monde process of minimalist City-style gentrification was briefly disrupted, as ‘urban explorer’ Bradley Garrett climbed to the top of the then incomplete structure, trespassing inside the gated ‘arcology’. ‘Look at the recklessness of youth today!’ said the Daily Mail, while UKUncut and Occupy LSX grumbled at his ‘self-serving’ publicity stunt. Bradley’s blog is certainly open to both accusations. But as the Occupy movement’s tent-city around Paternoster Square is replaced with a stark sign warning visitors that “any licence to the public to enter or cross this land is revoked forthwith”, the fight for space is sorely needed on a wider scale. The Shard’s opening may have been a profligate celebration of all that is perverse about London’s ruling elite, but any small acts of subversion provide important questions as to how to claim and reclaim liberty from those seeking to control us with such an extensive matrix of oppressive symbols.
I have learnt from friends who attempted to watch the launch of the Shard from further south, that the light show was entirely directed towards the North - its media denizens and global projection. The natives who live closest to the tower might blink like the rest of us, but lasers are for the spectacle, not for citizens.