Of course, I was not the first to climb London’s 1,010ft Shard: a small band of urban explorers ascended to the tip of the building a long time before I did, back in 2011 when it was still under construction. And since the Shard’s observation platform was opened in 2013, many millions have already trod that same path, or rather been herded through airport-like security and squeezed into the pristine lifts that rise effortlessly, if not continuously, to the viewing galleries that begin on the 69th floor. In fact, the only climbing involved for the tourist is the ascent by stairs to the semi-open-air platform on floor 72 – at 800ft, the highest accessible level of this outsized glass splinter. The 1,700 or so stairs that comprise the other way up and down the building are only used for emergency training – a waiter I spoke with confirmed that it took around 45 minutes to ascend this way.
At £25.95 per person, the experience is by no means accessible to all, but its high price holds up well in comparison to other publicly-accessible super- or mega-tall buildings: for example, £28 to access One World Observatory in New York City (around 1,250ft); or £30 to ascend 1,820ft of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, currently the World’s tallest building. Even after fours years, the View from the Shard experience still seems to be immensely popular; when I ascended the building at dusk on the shortest day of the year in 2016, there were long queues, and both viewing galleries were almost full during my hour-long visit. Indeed, during the first year of its life as a building, almost all of the Shard’s revenue came from its viewing platforms and restaurants (around £5 million in 2013), the rest of the glass-framed interior still awaiting tenants or buyers.
Although I had booked my visit from the rather distanced perspective of a researcher (I’m currently working on the imaginative associations of very tall buildings), it was impossible not to be awed by the extraordinary view itself. There are less expensive ways of seeing London from above – the Sky Garden at floor 35 of 20 Fenchurch St (better known as the Walkie-Talkie building) is free, while the much older Monument nearby gives panoramic views from the top of its 160-ft column for only a modest £4.50; but being at the highest point in a city lends a sense of privilege to the visitor, of status even, that the lesser heights simply cannot provide. Apart from the view from an aeroplane or helicopter, this is the nearest one gets to seeing the city as a map – spread out before you as a vast canvas that gives you, the viewer, a sense of mastery.
For those who know about the history of London in the nineteenth century, this experience seems remarkably similar to the mania for panoramas (enormous painted views of the city housed in specially-designed rotundas) and hot-air balloon rides that gripped the British capital – and others across Europe – in that century. As the art historian Lynda Nead has argued, the popularity of these views from above came at precisely the time when London was undergoing rapid transformation and exponential growth in the wake of the industrial revolution. Thus, when the journalist Henry Mayhew went up in a hot-air balloon in 1862, he experienced London as an exclusively visual spectacle and gained a sense of power through this: ‘for it is an exquisite treat to all minds to find that they have the power, by their mere vision’, of extending their consciousness to scenes and objects that are miles away.’ In this rapturous visual experience, the normally fragmented city experienced at ground level ‘became all combined, like the coloured fragments of the kaleidoscope, into one harmonious and varied scene.’
From the transparent tapering room 800ft up the Shard, the half-light of the grey December afternoon gradually faded and London became a vast spectacle of mutlicoloured lights: a fairytale image of twinkling grandeur. Directly below, the vast viaduct of London Bridge station fanned out its innumerable lines of railway tracks southwards – onwards into the distant Surrey hills; while serpentine arteries of traffic pulsed in all directions to the horizon. Familiar illuminated shapes anchored the eyes: landmarks old and new – Tower Bridge, the London Eye, and Canary Wharf. And everywhere, startling evidence of the new: of London being transformed by tall buildings. Nearest, the cluster of new towers in the City of London, the characteristic red lights on their crowns casting an alien glow over the emerging nightscape; further away, the emerging islands of hyper-gentrification – Elephant and Castle, Stratford, and the isolated towers built by oligarchs and sheikhs all along the Thames.
The contemporary transformation of London is likely to be the most extensive since the rebuilding of most of the city after the Great Fire of 1666. The current pace of change – the most visible manifestation of which are the hundreds of new towers sprouting everywhere – may not be a result of the explosive population growth witnessed in the 19th century city, or the chaos of widespread infrastructural transformation; yet, it is as equally, if not more, momentous than the city which drove Victorians to the skies both literally and metaphorically to convince themselves they could understand what was happening to the city. What is distinctive about the newfound hunger for the view from above is that it is a view only made possible by the extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny global elite. When we gaze out over the city from a great height we are effectively sharing, albeit only temporarily, the viewpoint of that elite, with their inviolate office boardrooms and multimillion pound penthouse apartments high above the city. Indeed, from the top of the Shard – and only from there – we look down on them for a moment. A small price to pay perhaps for such a feeling of mastery, even if we know it’s based on a fantastic and dangerous illusion.