Tuesday, 17 January 2012
At the top of the Shard
The top of the Shard is almost there, and presumably there will be excitable media coverage when it is put in place, accompanied by references to the battle for 'highest spire' between the Empire State Building and Chrysler building in 1930s New York (just as the recession kicked in - an issue also in the news this last week, when we were told that a wave of tall buildings is an indicator of impending economic collapse - which since skyscrapers are always planned in boom times, and bust always has followed boom, seems about as outstanding a statement of the bleeding obvious as you could hope for.)
Since the top of a tall building is the part that is most visible from a distance, and it is visibility from a distance that tends to be the most contentious aspect of tall buildings when they are proposed, the design of the top is of particular interest. The Shard and the Heron Tower (view from the west above) offer two possible models - simple and much the same from any direction, vs. more complicated / fragmented and different from different viewpoints. There are pros and cons for each approach - the main problem with the latter being that if you make it look great from some directions, it may not look so great from others (you can also have 'complicated but symmetrical' (Chrysler) and 'simple/singular but asymmetrical' (Cheesegrater)).
Because tall buildings that few people like, such as 1960s council housing blocks, tend to have particularly dumb tops, there is a tendency to think that 'interesting' tops are to be preferred; and certainly the skyline of Canary Wharf would be poorer without its central pyramid. But dumb vs. interesting is not the same as simple vs. complicated - if the Chrysler building is the apotheosis of the 'good complicated' top, Mies van der Rohe's Seagram building might be that of the 'good simple'. The challenge for today's skyscraper architects is to match the quality of buildings like that - not much sign of that happening in the second half of most books on the history of the skyscraper to date, but on the evidence of the Shard and Heron, London will be better served that most of the Middle East and Far East. Maybe our planning system isn't so bad after all....