Sharp move for an old city

New reach... the Shard is expected to attract a million visitors a year.
New reach... the Shard is expected to attract a million visitors a year.

The eagerly awaited Shard has opened. Julietta Jameson asks whether it is yet another touristic Tower of Babel.

When Renzo Piano's design for the Shard was made public in 2000, it raised mixed feelings, to say the least.

The Paris Pompidou Centre architect's radical design was hardly the first skyscraper to be built in London. But it would be the tallest building not only in the city and Britain but in western Europe, and it was to be built near Tower Bridge and the Tower of London - two of the most iconic landmarks of British architecture. And its design was something previously unseen: a tapering column ending in a jagged, seemingly unfinished peak, like a shard of broken glass; hence the name.

So controversial did it become that there was an inquiry into its development. But in 2003, the way was cleared for it to be built. Ten years later, it is finished - and open.

The big question remains, however: why? Why did London need such an edifice? It was a city with a strong architectural identity that the Shard has changed forever. Modern history, though, is peppered with big buildings being built just because people (mostly men) like to build big things. They've changed city landscapes - some of them very much for the better.

The Eiffel Tower (324 metres) doesn't exactly date to the city's roots. Built for an exhibition in the late 19th century, the iron structure, which dwarfs the rest of Paris, wasn't unanimously liked at first. Then it grew on people. It was almost torn down in 1909. Now, of course, it's one of the most-loved buildings in the world.

Conversely, New York City's Empire State Building (443 metres) opened in 1931 and was an instant hit. Not so much Sydney Tower (309 metres, opened in 1981), whose syringe design juxtaposes Macquarie Street's colonial sandstone, or Melbourne's Eureka Tower (297 metres, opened in 2006), which dominates absolutely everything.

While the Eureka Tower has a way to go to being loved, most Sydneysiders accept Sydney Tower as an essential part of the city's mini-Manhattan skyline, though the observation deck is strictly for tourists.

Dubai's Burj Khalifa (830 metres - yep, 830), the tallest building in the world, is in the perfect place for such a structure: one of no discernible architectural identity other than being a place of big stuff. And, anyway, it's a huge improvement on the city's kitschy plans for a replica Eiffel Tower, along with a replica Taj Mahal four times the size of the original, and a replica Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Will London, and the world, come to love the Shard? London tourism authorities hope so. For visitors to the city, its main attraction is a viewing gallery at level 69.

It's expected that thousands of visitors a day - or a million a year - will take the journey up its zippy lifts, making the building to London what the Empire State Building is to New York and the Eiffel is to Paris. It just might take a while.

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This story Sharp move for an old city first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.