I was lucky enough to be invited to the opening of The Shard recently. Not my first visit, as regular readers will recall, but the transformation from that first time to what we have today is a wonderful thing to see.
The TV reports from the event declared that it was a building that “divided opinion”. This may very well be true but as far as I can see the man and woman in the street seem to be pretty much in favour. In the end I suspect that, like the Eiffel Tower*, it will win the sceptics round, so that in time people will wonder what all the fuss was about.
And until that time the debate will continue. But that’s good too. Architecture is probably the most visible and conspicuous of art-forms, and one of its strengths is that the critics and professionals do not have the last word. Public affection – or opprobrium – is a really important aspect of a building’s success.
The Giraffe in the Room
I’m being slightly disingenuous here, I think. The issue with The Shard is not so much one of style: modern as opposed to traditional, brick and stone against steel and glass. No. The elephant in the room (‘giraffe’ would be a better metaphor, though) is the height of the thing.
And that’s mostly because of concerns about the impact of tall buildings on the skyline. Official planners seem to prefer tall buildings when they’re clustered together. I’m not sure why.** And, while most of us are perfectly comfortable with monumental back-drops such as mountains because they’re ‘natural’ we’re often uneasy when the same thing is man-made.
At the same time, pretty well all of us are happy to queue up, and pay ready cash, for the chance to go to the top of the tallest buildings and enjoy the view.
And while all this is going on, the business world argues with some force that economic considerations aren’t getting enough of a look-in. Even in an era of ever more sophisticated telecommunication, companies working in the same sort of field like to do so in more or less a common space and, if outward spread is impossible, why – they ask – shouldn’t they move upwards instead?
ARP Warden Hodges
These are big questions and we need to come up with a sensible and reasonable response that is neither stultifyingly resistant to innovation, nor recklessly adventurous. And whatever we end up with had better not be in the form of a Government diktat, to be enforced by some individual or organisation with a mind-set based around ARP Warden Hodges*** from Dad’s Army. Easy, eh?
I’m pretty open-minded on all this, to be honest, and don’t feel comfortable in any particular camp when it comes to architecture. Excellence, suitability for its setting and fitness for purpose are my own personal priorities here. I hope I’ll be able to explore the issues here more fully later in the year.
Stonehenge – work begins
Height, however, is very definitely not a feature of the development at Stonehenge, which I visited as work officially started last week. I’ve written about Stonehenge before, and I’m pleased to do so again.
The project has been in the heritage ‘in-tray’ for some thirty years, so let’s pause and deliver a well-deserved (and rather overdue) pat on the back to everyone who had the determination and boldness to push the project through at last. A new visitor centre and exhibition building is being constructed out of sight of the stones and this, together with road improvements, will ensure that the quality of the experience you have when visiting is vastly improved.
It will also, I hope, see the end of a longstanding piece of journalistic tradition, which runs something like this: journalist decides to take family on a fun and improving visit to Stonehenge; journalist returns home rather less than enamoured with the facilities there and, later that night, writes an excoriating column ripping into the management of Britain’s most recognisable World Heritage Site. And so it has happened, with reassuring regularity, for at least thirty years, until now.
Not all traditions are good, especially if you’re the Heritage Minister positioned under the bucket of warm stuff, looking up.
And the new visitor centre is also a fine example of how money for a big and important public project does not always have to come from the taxpayer. About a third of the £27 million budget came from The Heritage Lottery Fund, while the rest came from charitable trusts, individual philanthropists and the profits from the existing commercial activities on site. Many thanks to them, too, for finally making this happen.
Honorary OBE for Oliver Peyton
Finally, I hope there’s time for a quick word – and a picture – to mark one of the feel-good moments in the life of a Minister for Tourism. Last Monday I had the pleasure and privilege of awarding an honorary OBE to the Irish restaurateur, Oliver Peyton. He brought his mum, wife, sister and two of his charming – and impeccably polite – children along for the ceremony.
Afterwards they all took off for a splendid family lunch in Hammersmith, later tweeting ‘Beautiful lunch at the River Cafe yesterday absolutely the best special occasion restaurant in London. OBE day very good day.’
Me? I had a quick sandwich from over the road and a glass of refreshing DCMS tap water. For some reason, I didn’t think to Tweet about it though.
*When the Eiffel Tower opened, it outraged a fair proportion of the 19th century Parisian commentariat, provoking them to send an open letter which declared: “We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection…of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower.” To date more than 200,000,000 people have visited it, making it the most visited paid monument in the world.
**I’m told this is only partly due to aesthetics, and more a problem with planning. Apparently very tall buildings, like nuclear reactors, are almost impossible to get planning permission to build so, once you’ve got one, you might as well put several on the same site. Who knew?
***Warden Hodges, for those who’ve got through life without ever having seen the BBC’s Dad’s Army, was a greengrocer (played by Bill Pertwee) who had become an air raid warden during the war and had clearly allowed this teaspoonful of power to go to his head.
Shard image by Gordon Wrigley on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Oliver Peyton image ©Crown copyright