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The Shard Symbolised In Skyscrapers Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2804 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In this essay I’m going to start by introducing my topic of interest, then to build up some key facts about my area of interest, to lead on to a question that I am going to address through different concepts about a chosen case study, I will be looking to focus mainly on the architectural concepts; meaning, symbolism and scale. I will also be looking at other theories and quotes to bring into my essay to talk about, and then to use as a way to place myself within an existing argument. Having this as a starting point I will then make connections and possible unexpected turns as I go further into my research, this will form an analysis which I will then look back to see if I have answered my original question that I set out in the beginning and to discuss what I have learned from writing this essay, and finished off with a conclusion.

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“Creating a new theory is not like destroying an old barn and erecting a skyscraper in its place. It is rather like climbing a mountain, gaining new and wider views, discovering unexpected connections between our starting points and its rich environment. But the point from which we started out still exists and can be seen, although it appears smaller and forms a tiny part of our broad view gained by the mastery of the obstacles on our adventurous way up.” (1) (Albert Einstein)

My topic of interest is the ‘skyscraper’ which you may have already guessed from the quote that I included by Albert Einstein, I found this quote to be a good starting point to write an essay which is going to be of a philosophical and theoretical nature, and to introduce my topic. Skyscrapers of course are very tall buildings which have been emerging all over the world, first appearing in the USA around the 1880’s, and have been known as skyscrapers for the better part of a century. The urban landscape of an American city will for most, including myself be of a forceful array of tall glass buildings shooting upwards into a merging with the atmosphere, this was mainly noticed from watching American films and series like ‘Friends’ as I was growing up. At this stage my interest was of a fascinated nature but my fascination soon turned into a desire to want to know as much as possible about skyscrapers after seeing pictures of the sudden growth of tall buildings in Dubai, some built and some conceptual models of future designs.

Now with the construction on the way of ‘The London Bridge Tower’ and the direction London seems to be taking with a wave of new tall buildings set out to be built, I feel it’s time to take a look deeper into my interest into skyscraper, by using ‘The London Bridge Tower’ also known as ‘The Shard’ as a case study, to answer the question, What does a structure, such as ‘The Shard’ mean and symbolise in an era of giant skyscrapers?

The Shard is to become the tallest building in the United Kingdom, towering above the previously tallest, one Canada Square in Canary Wharf, and within the European Union the Shard will be at a height not previously reached. The Shard was designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, and his philosophy for the design of a pyramid glass structure, is that it imitates a flake of glass, to show London world class status, and from London’s history of church spires and the sails of the ships that would have filled the Thames, of Canaletto’s 18th century London.

The Southwark Towers, a 1970’s office block is the site of the Shard, and was brought for £37 million, 1998, by Mr Sellar, the head of Sellar Property Group. Mr Sellar and architect Renzo Piano applied for planning permission, at a time when the world was to see a big change, starting with the fall of the Twin World Trade Towers, in New York, this in effect almost stopped the Shard from being realised, Mr Sellar says, “Very nearly scuppered it” (2) – the Shard will have “refuges” (2) built into its core. There was a public inquiry after the plans for the Shard scraped past the council, and conservation groups were to voice their worries that the Shard, will shadow over St Pauls Cathedral, the Tower of London and change London’s skyline. Planning permission was later granted in November 2003, for being “of the highest architectural quality” (3) by then Deputy Prime Minster, John Leslie Prescott.

There are many views of the meaning of the Shard for London, and some of the critics for the Shard, like the English Heritage going on to say, that the Shard is “a spike through the heart of historic London” (4) and Simon Jenkins, the National Trust chairman and newspaper columnist, calls it “a relic of Ken Livingstone’s desperate bid to imitate Manhattan or Dubai, a thundering great icon to the debt mountain plonked down in Southwark’s still intimate streetscape like a phallus from capitalist outer space.” (5) There may be some negativity towards the Shard while the meaning is still unclear, but if we look at structures like the Great Pyramids or a Mayan Temple, their meaning and appearance is somewhat of a mystery and makes you really wonder as to what they truly signify and what the civilisation behind them was like. One thing is for certain like these ancient structures of pasted civilisations, the modern skyline of skyscrapers is for modern day man, touching, breathe taking and leaves you amazed, it is clear that it is not the work of nature but of man, yet it has a splendour and intense force.

Keeping with the point that skyscrapers are breathe taking to those who view them, the Shard, will not only be breathe taking to see a glistening glass pyramid tower, but will be proof to the technological achievement of modern day man, and will be looked back on by future generations to come. There are so many factors which have all lead up to the construction of such a tower, technological, social, economic and historical, all of which designers have little or no control over, but one thing the designers do have control over is to influence the design in a sustainable manner to help create manageable environments, and for the Shard to become a vertical City in itself, looks at a meaning of a big change for humanity, and in history of the way city’s sprawl outwards rather than upwards. And leaves you with a wonder of what effect this structure will have on the very factors which lead to its creation.

The meaning behind the Shard being so tall, at just over 1000ft, which is a lot lower than first intended, is not as most would come to believe, that it is architects and engineers being completely obsessed with building as high as they can, since the rise of the first skyscraper, in Chicago, as part of their culture and ambition. It’s more of a development over a long period of time and has been inherent within us since our evolution; it is part of the drive that leads us to do nearly impossible feats of adventure or to travel the universe into space. Without the past there would not be the present, as with all things. So rather than an obsession, the meaning is more the product of the architects and engineers imagination, and the same goes for any other conceived structure, such as railways, dwelling, town halls, and so forth.

We are always trying to push the capabilities of materials, pushing them further and further, even from a simple material like sand, as when on the beach there will always be many sand castles and other structures scattered around. We have moved through many ages pushing material further with the use of technology and understanding, from the creating of the pyramids, to the great medieval cathedrals, to sixteen storey brick building and to structure’s like the Eiffel tower.

However this inherent desire to understand materials, technology, build taller has become of necessity for reasons relating to cultural, demographic, environmental and economical, with the main factors of the ever expanding global population growth and the increasing rate of urbanisation. With the need to house more and more people in the city, at greater densities than previously design to, the Shard will be a way to help accommodate theses rising factors.

The scale of skyscrapers was first achieved with the invention of the iron frame and the Otis mechanical lift, the wide spread use of rolled steel and reinforced concrete and the curtain wall, without all these technologies there would not be the skyscraper. When building so high, there is the effect of symbolism, firstly to the growing economy and industrial strength, showing the country’s power to the world.

The top of Ludgate Hill and the highest point in London, St Pauls Cathedral, which for hundreds of year was the tallest structure, and even today is protected by laws which protect the sight lines to the cathedral. St Pauls is a lasting monument to the glory of god and a symbol of the hope, resilience and strength of the city of London. As we can see scale and height have been used to create a symbol and to get a message across to the people, as with a skyscraper like the Shard, this will also leave behind an unforgettable impression on the civilisation of today.

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When Mr Sellar talks about the Shard he goes on to say it “will be for London what the Empire State building is for New York” (6) and that it will be a “symbol for London that will last for centuries, at least two.” (6) Others go on to say that they see it “as a symbol of the capitals recovery-concrete and glass proof of the city’s world-class status” (7) and that “it will regenerate the run-down heart of old London, and that building the city upwards means it need not spread outwards.” (7)

London has always had a long resistant to the vertical growth of buildings, but if we look at the new commissions and planning permissions that have been granted, we can see that there has been a radical change in this resistant to tall buildings. This could be due to London seeing the benefits and the direction that the future is heading with the factors relating to economic, politics, population growth, and so on. If we look at London’s previously tallest building 1 Canada Square, which held the top spot for 18 years, and how this building was seen as a symbol. Within the business community one Canada Square was seen as a beacon of power and strength, and as the symbolism of centre for the business society. And if we also look at how the symbolism of the skyscraper is used in London, by taking as an example, how the Re Swiss building was used as a way to promote London’s bid for the 2012 Olympics, by having athletics preforming moves with the Re Swiss building as a backdrop.

The Shard will be a symbol of London’s power, style, prosperity and strength, the Shard will also symbolise the start of a new age in the way our towns and cities are formed. The Shard will consist of offices, retail shops, restaurants, residential apartments and a 5 star hotel, spread over its 72 floors. The tower will be the housing of a small town, with places to work, eat, relax, shop and sleep. Below the Shard will be the London Bridge bus, tube and train stations, one of the busiest existing transport hubs in London, this will allow residents and users of the Shard to be well connected to travel anywhere they wish, without the need for their vehicles. This for London will prevent extra pollution and congestion on the already overcrowded London roads.

For the architect, the Shard has a somewhat different meaning to that of Mr Sellar, Renzo Piano says “I don’t believe it is possible to build a tall building in London by extruding the same shape from bottom to top. It would be too small at the bottom and too big at the top. Likewise, symbols are dangerous. Often tall buildings are aggressive and arrogant symbols of power and ego, selfish and hermetic. The tower is designed to be a sharp and light presence in the London skyline. Architecture is about telling stories and expressing visions, and memory is part of it. Our memory is permeated by history.”(8) He manages to turn the tallest building in Europe into a statement, which is not completely fitting for that of a skyscraper of which capitalism has given rise to, but there is that point that this will be the first to have so much mixed use spaces, compared to the traditional office skyscrapers.

The creation of the Shard will have architectural iconicity, which has a connection and relationship with contemporary capitalist globalisation, and the symbolic and aesthetic qualities of the Shard are part of a demonstration of how times, places and audiences are defined by agents and institutions of the transnational capitalist class.

The skyscraper’s true symbolic gesture is captured best by philosopher Leonard Peikoff, when he said of his associate Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead: “the skyscrapers, everything that man had traversed from the time of the cave to the time of this glorious and industrial civilisation, that was to (her the pinnacle of human achievement in physical terms.) It wasn’t just acquiring philosophy. It was acquiring ideas, acquiring science and then remaking the earth accordingly. And she couldn’t think of a more splendid and exciting and beautiful place than that view that you get of the skyscrapers when you don’t see the details of each one, but the mass of ingenuity and talent soaring for the sky.” (9) (Capitalism magazine)

The Shard is fairly sustainable in the fact that it will house the equivalent of a small town, the alternative to a tower like the Shard, would be to house the people and businesses in conventional developments, with the city centre already full. These developments would most likely be built outside the city in the suburbs or on the green belt land; this would take up probably about twenty times as much land that what the Shard is currently using. However trying to create a higher quality of urban life, while still accommodating for increasing population, the Shard may not necessary be the only solution, with the fact that there is finite resources, but as there is less and less land to build on, this type of building will play a vital role in the future of cities to come.

The meaning of the Shard for some Londoners is ultimately going to be home, and the Shard will be seen as others as a place or building that they can own, unlike traditional skyscraper, Ken Livingstone says “The Shard,” (11) “will be owned by Londoners” (11). This makes you wonder of what effects the Shard will have on its residents, and effects on society, with having everything they ever need in the one place. Will the Shard become their coffin, or will having it placed above one of London’s greatly connected transport link, prevent these people from becoming too comfortable in their cosy, safe and fully controlled environment.

“I cannot think that the world… is the result of chance; yet I cannot look at each separate thing as a result of design. I am, and shall ever remain, in a hopeless muddle.” (10) (Charles Darwin) If we are to study and think of the Shard as part of a greater evolution of architecture, in which many factors have played key to its development, as Charles Darwin would have studied the creature in his garden. Then it would be seen to be predictable that if any of the factors that I have fore mentioned in this essay and much more, had not been developed or played their part in the evolution of the history of architecture, then I believe we would be living in a very different world to which it is today. So is the meaning of the Shard not that it is an ensign of style, substance and prosperity or of power and strength, but rather a template in our development of where we are in time as a civilisation, and whether the idea behind the Shard is the design of Renzo Piano, or in fact the creation of every human being past and presents imagination, based on a long history of events. So it is somehow part chance and part design, with a great magnitude of different factors and events over all of time, playing their part, but then neither one without the other.

But one thing is for sure that the Shard will be a physical manifestation of mankind’s creativity and knowledge, art and engineering, form and function all merging together to reach the sky and in the end says we are here.


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