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Tower Bridge and The Shard are seen from a cycle path in London, May 24, 2012.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

For the mayor of London, it is a "huge commercial magnet," a sparkling beacon that will draw the world's eye back to the recession-and-scandal-battered British capital. But for other Londoners, the tallest building on the horizon is a vulgar middle finger up to the city's architectural traditions of modesty and restraint.

It is called The Shard, it looks a bit like a giant broken bottle, and when it opens tomorrow the 95-storey, 310-metre glass tower will be the highest skyscraper in the European Union. It will also give Londoners one more thing to fight about.

Designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano and almost entirely financed by Qatari investors, The Shard looms above the south bank of the Thames, in the borough of Southwark, where Shakespeare once staged his plays.

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The $2.3-billion structure, which has been in development for a dozen years and nearly fell victim to the financial crash of 2008, seems in many ways a symbol of an earlier, brasher era. Its numbers tell a recession-defying story: The top four storeys (up to the 72 nd floor) are a viewing platform that the public can visit beginning in February, if they're willing to shell out $40 for a ticket.

But that figure pales beside the reported price being charged for the two-storey penthouse on the 64th and 65th floors with eagle's-eye views over London: $80-million. There are nine other apartments, only slightly less grand, and the middle 18 floors will be occupied by the luxury Shangri-La Hotel, which opens next spring.

Mr. Piano came to London on the eve of The Shard's opening and fended off criticism, first voiced by English Heritage eight years ago, that his skyscraper would dominate the London skyline and crowd out cherished silhouettes such as St. Paul's Cathedral, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge.

"This building is not going to be arrogant," he said, sitting on the 14th floor of The Shard while workmen painted nearby and teams of window washers dangled outside. Instead, he described his tower as "a sparkling, quite gentle spire, flirting with the weather."

Other observers, however, have made unflattering comparisons to the unfinished Ryugyong Hotel that dominates the skyline of Pyongyang, and to George Orwell's forbidding Ministry of Truth from 1984.

Writing in the Guardian, columnist Aditya Chakrabortty called The Shard "almost the perfect metaphor for how the capital is being transformed – for the worse. The skyscraper both encapsulates and extends the ways in which London is becoming more unequal and dangerously dependent on hot money."

That money is being provided by investors from Qatar, who stepped in to save the development when it was threatened by the financial crash of 2008. Now the building is 95 per cent Qatari-owned, which puts it in the rich stockpile of property the Gulf state already possesses in London, including Harrods, Chelsea Barracks, the Olympic Village, and chunks of the London Stock Exchange and Barclays Bank.

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Asked when he thought The Shard might begin to pay for itself, Sheik Abdullah Bin Saud Al-Thani, governor of Qatar's central bank, would only say "recovery of our investment is a minor thing for us." More important, he said, is the longer-term strategy of building a strong relationship between the two countries.

But first, The Shard needs to be filled. As of yet, no commercial tenants have been announced, though the British developer, Irvine Sellar, said "we're in discussion with a number of partners" to occupy 24 floors of the building. Sitting next to a sign that declared The Shard to be "one of the most inspiring working environments ever built," Mr. Sellar added, "We're being very selective."

Urban explorers, meanwhile, have already broken into The Shard and climbed to the top. A base jumper parachuted from its pinnacle and a fox named Romeo climbed to the 72nd floor and lived for weeks on scraps before being gently evicted to a park along the river.

The Shard will open Thursday night with a dazzling laser show, while the London Philharmonic Orchestra plays Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. It is this level of bombast that irks some Londoners, who point out that The Shard is located in the hardscrabble neighbourhood of Southwark, which has one of the highest rates of youth unemployment in the city.

At the same time as they grumble, though, many have already fallen in love with the drama of the glass tower, which is visible from all parts of the capital and reflects London's mercurial sky ("like a kaleidoscope," Mr. Piano says .)

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About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More


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