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August 09 2012

Why Renzo Piano's Shard is out of tune with London's historical heart

Renzo Piano's innovative buildings in Genoa are deliberately invisible from the city's atmospheric medieval and baroque district. So why has London let him break his own rules?

The eminent curator Norman Rosenthal had his say on the Shard this week. To Rosenthal, it is the most beautiful building put up in London since St Paul's and its critics – he quotes me and Simon Jenkins – are hidebound stick-in-the-muds who just do not appreciate the genius of Renzo Piano.

I am sorry to disappoint Rosenthal but I've seen plenty of Renzo Piano's works around the world. I like and admire them. I know enough about him to wonder why he has abandoned his own delicate sense of scale and space in his assault on London. Why has he departed so violently from the civilised standards I associate with his architecture?

In Houston, Texas, the Menil Foundation is a lovely example of Piano's architectural talent. I went there in stifling summer heat. This low-slung art gallery is like an idealised, airy ranch house set among continually watered green lawns. White and calm outside, it creates a soothing, contemplative, space inside. It contrasts beautifully with the characterless forest of glass towers at the heart of Houston. It is an environmentally radical building that seeks to renew the neighbourhood around it.

In Genoa, Italy, another of my favourite buildings by Renzo Piano can be found in the riviera city's old harbour. It is the most beautiful aquarium in the world, a wonderful succession of spaces next to the sea. It's not much from the outside, but sharks and octopuses have never been given such a graceful home by their human captors. Aquariums are usually dark and claustrophobic. This one is light and spacious and creates a rich, thought-provoking encounter between humanity and nature.

It is part of a project by Piano – who is Genoese – to revive a derelict waterfront by restoring old buildings and adding his own, which also include a biosphere and an octopus-like branching viewing tower. In short, Renzo Piano has done wonders for his own city.

But wait. Where is the awe-inspiring skyscraper in the heart of Genoa? Where is the towering glass spike next door to the medieval houses of the Doria dynasty?

Piano's innovative buildings in Genoa are totally, intentionally, invisible from the city's densely built and atmospheric medieval and baroque heart. You have to walk through all the narrow streets of black-and-white palaces, right down to the harbour front, to find his works. Far from a modernist who has contempt for the past, Piano is revealed in Genoa – and Houston – as an architect who builds with sympathy for the fabric and atmosphere of cities.

The idea that Genoa would let him build something as out-of-scale and arrogant as the Shard in the heart of its historical district is absurd. Why would a city spit on itself in that way?

Why indeed. Piano on his home turf builds for people, not for power. London let him break his own rules, with consequences that are here to stay.


guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds




August 07 2012

The Shard is a St Paul's Cathedral for our time | Norman Rosenthal

Who cares who built it or why? The Shard is simply London's most magnificent building since Wren's masterpiece

The reactions to London's latest mega-structure have not been moderate. "The Shard has slashed the face of London forever," wrote Simon Jenkins in the Guardian a month ago, invoking the destruction of Timbuktu, Dresden, Moscow and Peking, not to mention the bulldozing of the great Buddhas of Afghanistan. Jonathan Jones, the Guardian's art critic, has described the Shard as "self-evidently a monument to wealth and power run way out of control. It screams with dazzling arrogance that money rules this city and says money inhabits a realm way above our heads."

But when have great buildings and structures – since the pyramids of Egypt and before – been anything other than monuments to wealth and power? The fact is that, in recent decades, in this country and all over the world, power has resulted in many vulgar and nasty blots on the landscape. London, of course, was terribly damaged during the second world war. Bomb sites scarred the city and, for the most part, what has come to replace them has been pretty abominable architecturally, with only a few honourable and sporadic exceptions. Any sensitive person crossing the Thames on Norman Foster's pedestrian bridge, looking left and right towards Christopher Wren's Baroque masterpiece, can only want to put on blinkers. Nasty skyscrapers have been built all over the West End and the City of London, from Centrepoint to the former NatWest Tower, not to mention London's Barbican. Here, many wonderful cultural events take place, but it can only be described as a city planning monstrosity. Think too of the expensively hideous Portcullis House, built to house the offices of our MPs next to the beautiful fantasy of Westminster Palace.

Finally, along comes something that is genuinely magnificent to look at – namely the Shard, as it has affectionately come to be known. I don't care about its function or who built it, or even who financed it. It is a masterpiece of visual design by one of the great living architects, Renzo Piano.

Elegant and as inspiring to look at as a great cathedral, I keep discovering it from all sides – near and far. Its apparently broken apex makes for one astonishingly poetic image. As a pure glass edifice it resembles the most amazing cut diamond, both by day in the sunshine and at night lit up as a beacon over the city, as thrilling as the Eiffel Tower in Paris – which was also hated by establishment figures when it first went up. Now we cannot imagine Paris without it. I cannot now imagine London without the Shard and would go so far as to say that it is arguably the greatest and most beautifully skyreaching building to be erected in London since St Paul's Cathedral.

Critics who profess to be concerned with London and the way it looks would spend their energy better if they were to turn their attention to those ghastly sculptures mushrooming up all over the city's squares and parks. The idea of walking around Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens now fills me with horror as my eyes are continually assaulted by absurd and corrupt objects such as the horse's head at Marble Arch, not to mention the stupid jelly babies nearby, or the monument to the poor animals killed in the two world wars.

The beautiful Royal Artillery Memorial of Sargeant Jagger has been horribly upstaged by a succession of hideous monuments commemorating fallen heroes of the Commonwealth, most recently a ghastly parody of the beautiful screen of Decimus Burton next to Apsley House. One can argue about the rights and wrongs of erecting a monument to Bomber Harris, who in the understandable hysteria of the second world war caused, among other things, the destruction of the beautiful city of Dresden. What one can also argue, if one has any aesthetic sensibility, is that the retrograde and cheap monument, which is impossible to overlook as one passes through Hyde Park Corner, is the most ghastly eyesore and should have been prevented.

In the meantime, one can only be grateful that at least the Shard is here to give continual visual pleasure from all aspects and distances across town. Don't you love the story of the fox that climbed to its top? How happy it must have been!


guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds




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