Looking out from the Shard’s new viewing gallery at the city of London 244m below, I wonder what artist Wenceslaus Hollar would have made of it. Made homeless in the Sack of Prague during the Thirty Years War, Hollar was patronized and brought to London by the Earl of Arundel, where he began etching hundreds of maps of the burgeoning political, financial and trade capital.
Drawn from the top of Southwark Cathedral, the Czech artist’s engraved huge plates, using his own form of proto-isometric projection, that rendered the city with a previously unseen accuracy. Before Hollar, there had probably been no way for the lay-person to have had an understanding of the scale of the city and the scale of themselves within it; but after him, even the lowliest Londoner knew their place- precisely. He’s buried over there, 2 miles away as the crow flies, just past a diminutive Big Ben, in St Margaret’s church, his life’s work held in the National and Royal collections- a testament to his role in the development of London’s sense of itself.
Maybe something similar has happened here- although you’ll have to work through a rogues gallery of banal, oversized backlit Sergeant Pepper-like celebrity montages at the View from the Shard’s entrance level to realise it. But once you’ve taken the one minute and two lifts to ascend to level 69, the observation space is unnervingly distraction-free. I expected a gift shop and café, and half expected a cocktail bar, but what you get is a triple height doughnut of viewing area around a timber-clad central core. And of course, that view.
The experience of the view is an intriguing one, bearing comparison with others. The View from the Shard’s promoters are keen to push the idea of being ‘in and of’ the city, and this in fact holds up. But it is different from, say, the London Eye’s 135m, where the perception of the urban topography is of being rooted within the city, just hovering over its roof level. The view here, by comparison, is of slight disengagement, where the city begins to be read almost as a model, and where the edges of the city’s geological bowl can be perceived- its train lines worming to and from it with vaguely disarming slowness.
Yet compare this with the experience on the far higher observation deck of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, and the difference is palpable. 200m higher and a cityscape teeters on the edge of abstraction, the view more akin to Google maps than it is to any experiential sense of the city. Taking this observation of abstraction to its logical conclusion, you wonder whether it was actually that difficult for basejumper Felix Baumgartner, who last year travelled up to the stratosphere in a balloon, to step off his transport pod and drop the 24 miles back to ground- perhaps his fear was cosseted in a veneer of unreality.
Perhaps mitigating any sense of unreality, the Shard’s views are augmented by high-tech ‘Tell:scopes’- intelligent viewfinders that can identify buildings and zoom in under real or virtual conditions, to help in associating the viewer with the viewed. They work. Once I’d identified a local church, I could even see my house from here. Unfortunately, far more obvious was Raphael Viñoly’s 20 Fenchurch St looming benignly across the river like a fat, startled cobra.
But in ascending to the Shard’s lofty heights, has Joe Public been sold short? General access to the tops of London’s towers might have been on London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s socialist wish-list, but with the £25 cost of getting up there (£19 for kids), it won’t just be the altitude that takes your breath away. Extrapolate the 200 people an hour who’ll be visiting with the 15 hours its open a day and you’re looking at around £20M turnover a year. That’s a lot of revenue generated for a client in discharging what I presume was a Section 106 condition. Still, what price the truth? Wenceslaus Hollar apparently died in abject poverty in 1677, his last recorded request being that the bailiffs not take away the bed on which he was dying. One can’t help but feel that he would have willingly relinquished even this last luxury for the chance to stand up here and see his visionary draughtsmanship rendered real.