Flying inside London's Shard, the EU's tallest tower
Gazing over London from the top of the Shard, the European Union's tallest building, "will feel like flying", world-renowned architect Renzo Piano told AFP on a tour of the near-completed skyscraper.
"It's always a surprise when you come on site," the Italian shouted over a cacophony of hammering on one of the middle floors of the tower, which will eventually loom 310 metres (1,017 feet) over southeast London.
"You spend years drawing and making models, making mock-ups, and then this," he said, as his eyes took in the unplastered walls and the wires dangling from the ceiling, 12 years after he first started sketching the Shard's jagged tips.
The enormous glass-clad structure, which will comprise a total of 95 floors, is already winning critical acclaim for 74-year-old Piano.
But the Shard's futuristic silhouette has angered traditionalists who say it will ruin London's skyline when the external structure is finished in May, dwarfing landmarks such as St Paul's Cathedral and the Houses of Parliament.
English Heritage, the national body responsible for protecting historic sites, says the skyscraper has tainted a view of St Paul's, one of Britain's best-loved monuments.
But Piano, renowned for his work on the distinctive Centre Pompidou arts centre in Paris with its mesh of colourful external pipes, dismissed the criticism with an elegant wave of the hand.
"St Paul's is the icon of London and will remain the icon of London," he said, even though the Shard's website describes it as "an icon for London".
"This building is not arrogant," he insisted. The skyscraper will be "like a spire", its glinting walls reflecting its neighbours and the capricious London skies.
"It's always a bit difficult to accept new buildings," he added. "But St Paul's was modern at the time."
In any case, he pointed out, though the Shard has shot upwards at a speed that has startled Londoners, construction only started after a lengthy public inquiry by Britain's then Labour government.
"When you're making a building like this, that's so important for the city, you have to be absolutely sure that it's the right thing to do," said Piano.
He added wryly: "As an architect, if you make a mistake it stays there for a long time."
The unfinished Shard is already the European Union's tallest building, having overtaken Frankfurt's 300-metre Commerzbank Tower in December as it edges up, but it is still some way behind the world's tallest tower -- the 828-metre Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
But as construction began on the Shard in 2009, just across the River Thames a crisis was gripping one of the world's top financial hubs.
The architect conceded that seeing through the £450 million ($706 million, 536 million euro) project amid the economic slump "was not easy".
And as Britain teeters again on the brink of recession, many wonder whether the Shard will stand over a city in long-term decline. Piano, however, hopes the skyscraper will provide a much-needed lift to London's economy.
"Sometimes buildings have been built in a recession and become a symbol of energy," he says. "I think this will happen like that."
The Shard will house Britain's first Shangri-La hotel as well as luxury flats, restaurants, office space and a viewing observatory on floors 68 to 72 that will give 360-degree panoramas of the British capital.
The idea, said Piano, is to build a "vertical city" within a city, operating "24 hours a day -- offices, a hotel, public spaces like restaurants.
"And you'll have the viewing gallery up there, which will receive one million visitors a year."
The Shard's wealthy inhabitants, he admits, will need a strong head for heights. But Piano says those who move in to floors 53 to 65 -- Britain's highest residential properties -- will enjoy unparalleled views of the city.
"It will feel like flying. It's a constant aspiration, the idea of taking off, of breathing fresh air," he beamed. "I think that will be lovely."
© 2012 AFP