'The Shard': The Building That Will Change London Forever

PHOTO: A boat moves along the River Thames against the backdrop of the Shard tower in London, Dec. 13, 2011.

British developer Irvine Sellar and Italian architect Renzo Piano are building the tallest building in Western Europe, known as "the Shard." But ambition and arrogance have blinded the pair to the building's disregard for London's history and character.

Viewed from the building's 57th floor, London spreads out like a miniature wonderland. The medieval Tower of London, across the River Thames, looks like a child's toy castle. Buckingham Palace, lying behind it, appears no bigger than a dollhouse.

Once completed, this building will have a total of 72 floors. Including the enormous spire at the top, it will stand 310 meters (1,017 feet) high. Even in its unfinished state, it's the tallest building in Western Europe, jutting toward the sky like a glass wedge with sharp contours. The building is certainly no beauty, and its silhouette seems confident, almost arrogant. Even its name sounds aggressive: the Shard.

London already boasts a few tall buildings, the most famous being Lord Norman Foster's so-called "Gherkin," a 180-meter-tall (590-foot-tall) building primarily housing offices of the global reinsurance company Swiss Re that got its nickname from its elliptical form. But even the Gherkin looks like a Lego toy when compared to the Shard. Indeed, the Shard -- essentially London's first genuine skyscraper, has broken a taboo. It's the first building to alter the city's character, one that shrinks the old Roman city of London down to a picturesque stage set.

'Living in Paradise '

Irvine Sellar likes it that way. Sitting on the building's 15th floor, where parquet flooring and carpeting are already installed, he points out the view over London. "From here," he says, "you can look out on more than a thousand years of history." Sellar is a real estate developer and the man behind the tower that makes everything else in this city of 8 million -- the history, the architecture and, or course, the people -- appear small and insignificant. Sellar says his skyscraper will change London -- and not just for today or tomorrow, "but for centuries."

Even his dark suit doesn't make the 72-year-old Sellar look excessively distinguished. His hairstyle looks a bit like a perm and could be something straight out of the 1970s, when Sellar was the king of Carnaby Street, making his fortune with a chain of clothing stores. Having turned to real estate since then, he has enjoyed varying degrees of success.

Still, there's no question about his audacity. While many construction projects ground to a halt in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Sellar was just getting started, drawing his investors from Qatar.

In fact, not even the current financial situation -- with a teetering Greece, a seemingly unsolvable euro crisis and an uncertain global economy -- worries Sellar, who will even go so far as to say: "We're living in paradise." In 2012, London will host the Summer Olympics, and Queen Elizabeth II will celebrate her diamond jubilee, marking 60 years of her reign. For Sellars, 2012 means "6 billion people looking at London and at us" -- in other words, a perfect year to market his tower.

High Hopes

Sellar is convinced his building will become London's most important landmark. It was designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, another elderly man with no shortage of self-confidence. But the 74-year-old Piano has something Sellar doesn't: an aura of sophistication and global fame. Incidentally, Piano finds "the Shard" a poetic name.

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