The Shard: An Architecture Landmark to Visit in London

The Shard in London, also known as the Shard of Glass, Shard London Bridge, and formerly London Bridge Tower, is an architectural and engineering marvel. It is the tallest building in the United Kingdom and the European Union, at 1,016 feet (309.6 meters). The Shard’s architecture is a blend of contemporary modernism with postmodern elements. Its facade, a composition of 11,000 glass shards, creates a vertical city within its 95 stories housing offices, apartments, hotels, restaurants, and public viewing galleries. The Shard is an example of innovative design and construction techniques. It employs a hybrid concrete and steel frame structure with a unique “top-down” construction method for efficiency. The Shard’s design also reflects London’s history, with Renzo Piano drawing inspiration from various historical elements. Its spire-like structure echoes London’s church spires and tall ship masts, representing a connection between the past and the present. The Shard’s design accommodates diverse functions, from offices to observation decks. Its layout and transparency facilitate natural light, reducing energy use and offering panoramic views of London. Maintaining the Shard involves specialized teams and equipment for window cleaning and systems upkeep. Its sustainable design features also reduce maintenance needs. For architects and enthusiasts, The Shard offers tours that delve into its architectural and structural intricacies. Visitors can explore various aspects of the building, from its design philosophy to its sustainable features. Architects can learn valuable lessons from the Shard’s design and construction.

What is the Shard?

The Shard, also called the Shard of Glass, Shard London Bridge, and formerly London Bridge Tower, is a London skyscraper forming part of the London Bridge Quarter development. It is an 87-story building currently the tallest in the United Kingdom and the European Union. The Shard is a mixed-use building incorporating retail, offices, hotels, apartments, restaurants, and a public viewing gallery. The building’s design, which resembles the shaft of a stiletto switchblade, was inspired by church spires and ships’ masts. The Shard is a hub for transportation and commercial activities, with offices, restaurants, retail stores, public spaces, winter gardens, private residences, a hotel, and a general observation gallery.

Architectural landmark: the shard skyline © hanlin sun
The Shard Skyline © Hanlin Sun

The Shard was designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano. The Shard was a response to the urban vision of London Mayor Ken Livingstone and his policy of encouraging high-density developments in the city’s central area. The Shard stands 1,016 feet (309.6 meters) high, making it the tallest building in the United Kingdom and the European Union. It is also the second-tallest free-standing structure in the United Kingdom. The Shard has 72 habitable floors, with a viewing gallery and open-air observation deck on the 72nd floor at 802 feet (244.3 meters). The building’s façade consists of 11,000 glass ‘shards,’ and the structure is tiered, with a reinforced concrete basement, a composite steel deck from the ground floor to the 40th level, concrete again from levels 41 to 72, topped off with steel to the tip of the spire.

Architectural landmark: the shard apex © jean-luc benazet
The Shard Apex © Jean-Luc Benazet

The Shard is located on the south bank of the River Thames, beside London Bridge Station, in the London Borough of Southwark. It forms the centerpiece of the Shard Quarter. The Shard is close to several London attractions, including Borough Market, HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge, and the Tower of London. The construction of the Shard began in March 2009. It was topped out on March 30, 2012, and inaugurated on July 5, 2012. The building achieved practical completion in November 2012.

What architectural style is most prominent in the Shard?

The most prominent architectural style of the Shard in London is contemporary modernism with some postmodern elements. The 95-story supertall skyscraper designed by master architect Renzo Piano was constructed between 2009 and 2012. It was envisioned as a vertical city that embodied the future of 21st-century city dwellings. The commercial Shard’s facade is defined by floor-to-ceiling angled glass that tilts to maximize interior spaces’ light standards. This building-wide glazed exterior exemplifies Piano’s signature minimalist contemporary modernist approach, which dispenses ornamentation in favor of high functionality. The eleven unevenly stacked boxes give the illusion of shards of glass, further enhancing the Shard’s contemporary look.

What structural engineering principles are employed in the construction of the Shard?

The Shard features several innovative structural engineering techniques in its design. Firstly, The Shard utilizes a hybrid concrete and steel frame structure. The lower section uses a steel frame with a concrete core for stability up to the 40th floor. Post-tensioned concrete is used from floors 41-69 to provide rigidity and control sway. Secondly, an innovative “top-down” construction method was used, enabled by concrete piles driven into the ground below the core to support the structure as it rose upwards. This allowed excavation and construction to happen concurrently, saving significant time and cost. It was a complex undertaking and a first for the UK. Thirdly, the distinctive sloping glass facade shards posed engineering challenges. The shards are set at different angles and contain opening vents for natural ventilation of winter gardens. Complex customized curtain wall panels were designed to meet aesthetic, performance, and installation requirements across 14 different facade types. Fourthly, the structure utilizes vierendeel trusses around the perimeter and hat trusses across the long spans to enhance rigidity. These were integrated with the architectural design for transparency. Lastly, the foundation design overcame the obstruction of the previous building’s piles by using secant piles for the retaining walls and large-diameter rotary piles socketed into the underlying strata to support the tremendous loads. Multiple advanced piling techniques were used to construct the complex foundations.

Architectural landmark: the shard street view day © steve kadas
The Shard Street View Day © Steve Kadas

Who designed the Shard?

The London skyscraper known as the Shard was designed by acclaimed Italian architect Renzo Piano and his firm Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Considered a pioneer of modern architecture, Piano is known for his innovative glass and steel buildings that display creativity and functionality through minimalist design. Born in Genoa, Italy, in 1937, Piano graduated from Milan Polytechnic University in 1964 and soon began working with iconic modernists Louis Kahn and Zara Hadid. His big break came in 1977 when he co-designed the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, which cemented his reputation as a forward-thinking contemporary architect. Piano established his influential architectural firm, which is dedicated to groundbreaking modern buildings integrating new technologies.

What are the historical design influences visible in the Shard?

The Shard incorporates several key historical design influences in its iconic form. Firstly, the design of the Shard was heavily influenced by the historical context of London. Renzo Piano, the architect, drew inspiration from the spires of London churches and the masts of tall ships depicted in the 18th-century paintings of Venetian painter Canaletto. Secondly, the design of the Shard was also influenced by the irregular nature of the site on which it was built. Each facet of the building forms a shard, a plane of glass inclined inwards, rising towards the top. This design element reflects the cityscape’s irregularity and dynamism, allowing the building to “breathe” and interact with its surroundings. Thirdly, the design of the Shard was influenced by the concept of lightness and transparency. The building’s envelope comprises 11,000 panes of angled glass designed to reflect sunlight and the sky. This design feature allows the appearance of the building to change with the weather and seasons, creating a dynamic interaction with the natural environment. Lastly, the design of the Shard was influenced by the idea of a “vertical city”. The building houses a mix of uses, including offices, restaurants, a hotel, and residences, all stacked vertically. This design concept reflects the historical development of cities, where different functions and activities are layered vertically to use space efficiently.

Architectural landmark: the shard night © pietro de grandi
The Shard Night © Pietro De Grandi

How has the Shard influenced the design of other buildings in London?

The Shard has influenced the design of other buildings in London in several key ways. Firstly, the Shard pioneered an innovative “top-down” construction method in the UK. This allowed excavation and building work concurrently by supporting the rising structure on concrete piles, saving significant time and cost. Other major developments in London, such as 22 Bishopsgate, have successfully utilized this method. Secondly, the Shard brought a sleek, modern aesthetic to London’s skyline with its distinctive sloping glass facade. This demonstrated that iconoclastic designs could be daring and practically achievable. Other towers have taken inspiration from the Shard’s aesthetic boldness, like the Scalpel and Can of Ham buildings. Thirdly, the Shard merged sustainability and design by attaining high environmental certifications through features like a combined heating and power plant. Its commercial success proved that sustainable towers can also be profitable. This accelerated the push for more eco-friendly skyscrapers, like the pioneering zero-carbon development One Carter Lane. Fourthly, the Shard kickstarted the revival of the South Bank as a mixed-use area. Its impact has rippled outwards, attracting investment and developments like Shard Place to establish a thriving business district. It set a precedent for using iconic architecture as a catalyst for urban regeneration. Lastly, the Shard represented a vertical city with dedicated spaces for offices, restaurants, residences, and observation galleries. This inspired more multi-purpose towers catering to work, life, and leisure, like the Madison and Skyline.

Architectural landmark: the shard city view © ana paula grimaldi
The Shard City View © Ana Paula Grimaldi

What purpose does the Shard serve and how does the design help?

The Shard is a 95-story skyscraper serving as a vertical city housing office, restaurant, hotel, viewing gallery, and apartment. Renzo Piano’s contemporary design facilitates the tower’s diverse functions through an intelligent layout connected by numerous lifts traversing vertically. The Shard’s fragmented, angled glass façade maximizes natural sunlight and space within open floor plates. The transparency lets in light to reduce energy use while giving panoramic city views for tenants and visitors. The 11 shard-like stacked volumes separate public and private zones – offices occupy mid-levels, hotels, and restaurants are in the middle, and there are ten residences. The viewing galleries with angled glass walls and an open-air sky deck are parallel to famous London landmarks. The Shard’s orientation over the Thames and proximity to a transport hub integrate contextuality into its modern design. Sustainable features like built-in wind turbines, ventilated facades, and energy-saving systems complement Piano’s futuristic vision.

Architectural landmark: the shard sky garden view © colin
The Shard Sky Garden View © Colin

How is the Shard maintained?

There are five ways of how the Shard is maintained. Firstly, the outside windows of the Shard are cleaned via nine special building maintenance units located at levels 29, 75, and 87. Teams of window cleaners use these units, which have multi-jointed arms, to access and wash the 11,000 glass panels covering the building. The window cleaning occurs several times yearly to keep the exterior gleaming. Secondly, various specialized companies handle other maintenance tasks. For example, Aquamark Cleaning provides commercial window cleaning services using cranes and abseiling techniques. Companies like Total Clean and CoxGomyl offer industrial rope access services to clean and conduct repairs on angled glass facades. Protec Industrial Doors developed custom overhead glass doors on the 30th floor to allow access to cleaning equipment. Thirdly, the Shangri-La Hotel and Residences have dedicated facilities management teams for interior maintenance. This includes cleaning, waste management, security, landscaping, HVAC maintenance, and more. Specialized contractors are brought in for technical maintenance jobs as needed. Fourthly, sustainability features also reduce maintenance requirements. Energy-efficient lighting cuts down on bulb replacements. Water recycling systems conserve water usage. The combined heat and power plant provides efficient energy. Lastly, digital building information modeling was vital during construction to optimize maintainability. Access points for window cleaning and equipment were coordinated into the unique design. 

How does the Shard reflect cultural and contextual relevance in its design?

The Shard blends modernity with London’s rich architectural heritage. Renzo Piano’s vision was to create a “vertical city” that pays homage to historical landmarks while advancing innovation. The tower’s tapered form and spire-like shape draw inspiration from nearby church spires and the masts of ships along the Thames. This connects the Shard to the local context. The Shard reflects cultural values of sustainability. Its energy-efficient systems and public amenities, such as viewing galleries and green spaces, promote environmental awareness and community engagement. Easy access to transit hubs also reduces traffic congestion, benefitting the neighborhood. Its architecture balances international creative influences from Renzo Piano with elements rooted in London’s specific urban identity.

Architectural landmark: the shard street view night © nick fewings
The Shard Street View Night © Nick Fewings

What architectural trend or movement does the Shard represent?

The Shard represents two key contemporary architectural trends – sustainable tall building design and context-based postmodern architecture. Renzo Piano’s visionary design for the 87-story skyscraper is a case study in intelligent green highrise construction defining early 21st-century architecture. The Shard makes notable eco-friendly innovations at a structural engineering level, such as Europe’s first ventilated double-skin façade using glazed systems. The tower’s vertical village concept houses the evolving needs of modern communities within historical cityscapes. The Shard also nods at contextualism by integrating itself along Southbank’s cultural district and maximizing viewing connectivity to recognizable London icons. 

What are the challenges faced during the restoration of the Shard?

The Shard has faced several key challenges during the restoration. Firstly, the location of the Shard next to the River Thames posed difficulties for the excavation and construction. This required special waterproofing measures for the basement and foundations using bentonite. Secondly, the site was constrained by surrounding roads, rail, and utility infrastructure. Careful logistics planning was needed to coordinate deliveries and crane operations during the complex construction process on the confined site. Thirdly, the architect Renzo Piano envisioned the Shard as a “Vertical City” with various uses – offices, a hotel, restaurants, a viewing gallery, and apartments. Integrating these different functions within one building and ensuring efficient flows between them was an engineering challenge. Advanced building information modeling was used to coordinate the complex design. Fourthly, the height of the Shard and its proximity to historic landmarks like the Tower of London raised concerns about its visual impact on protected views and the scale of the city skyline. Lastly, the construction process itself posed difficulties. A top-down method was used where the core concrete structure was built upwards while basement levels were excavated below. This technique was a first for the UK and required precision engineering. 

How does the Shard comply with contemporary safety and accessibility standards?

The Shard incorporates several key features to comply with modern safety and accessibility standards. Firstly, the Shard was designed from the outset with safety as a critical priority. It has robust fire safety features, including state-of-the-art fire detection systems, dedicated firefighting lifts, pressurization systems, and fire-rated compartmentalization between different building uses. All fire safety systems were independently reviewed by consultants to ensure compliance with regulations. Secondly, there is a focus on safe evacuation, with 11 refuge areas, 13 specially-designed evacuation lifts, and seven staircases, all constructed from fire-resistant concrete. The hybrid phased/staged evacuation strategy enables efficient evacuation while considering users’ mobility capabilities. Thirdly, the Shard provides accessibility for people with disabilities. It has eight accessible lifts, including two fire evacuation lifts with audible and tactile controls. Staircases feature contrasting nosings for the visually impaired, and the public viewing areas have wheelchair access. Fourthly, worker safety has been paramount, especially for exterior maintenance. Innovations like temporary external safety nets helped protect workers during construction. The building is cleaned by designed suspended working platforms with strict safety procedures. Lastly, the Shard has 24/7 security monitoring. It features bomb-resistant glazing, CCTV surveillance, access control systems, and airport-style screening.

Are there any specific tours for architects or architecture enthusiasts visiting the Shard?

Yes, the Shard offers various experiences catering to architects and architecture enthusiasts. The building, designed by architect Renzo Piano, is a global symbol of modern architecture, incorporating state-of-the-art sustainable technologies and unique design elements. Visitors can explore the Shard through various tours and experiences. The Shard’s official website offers a detailed guide to the building’s floors, which include high-specification office spaces, restaurants, a five-star hotel, residential apartments, and London’s highest public viewing gallery. The viewing gallery, known as “The View from the Shard,” offers breathtaking 360° panoramic views of London. The London Festival of Architecture includes a guided architectural tour of the Shard’s neighboring Borough Market for those interested in a more in-depth architectural exploration. This tour explores the architecture and infrastructure of London’s oldest food market, offering insights into various architectural styles from Victorian to Art Deco to modern day. Artchitectours offers guided tours worldwide, including London, led by professional architects.

What lessons can architects learn from the design and construction of the Shard?

Architects can learn several key lessons from the design and construction of the Shard. Firstly, architects can learn from the Shard’s innovative use of digital technology. The Shard project saw a significant evolution in digital technology, with Building Information Modelling (BIM) being in its infancy when the project was conceived. The project demonstrated the potential of digital technology in construction and design, emphasizing the need for the industry to adopt digital twin technology. Secondly, the Shard’s construction process was unique and efficient. The ‘top-down’ construction method was used, which allowed the first 23 stories to be built before the basement was fully excavated. Thirdly, the Shard’s design prioritized sustainability. The building incorporates sustainable technologies, including rainwater harvesting and energy-efficient lighting. Its carbon footprint was also considered during its construction, and efforts were made to reduce CO2 emissions. Fourthly, the Shard’s design was highly complex and innovative. The building’s envelope is a passive double-skin system, which was necessary to meet the high transparency requirement. The Shard has fourteen different types of façade, each requiring special attention in design and construction. Fifthly, the Shard’s design was inspired by the local context, drawing inspiration from the spires of London churches and the masts of tall ships. This shows the importance of considering the local context and culture in architectural design. Lastly, the Shard’s mixed-use development approach is a crucial lesson for architects. The building houses retail, offices, a hotel, apartments, restaurants, and a public viewing gallery, demonstrating the success of mixed-use developments for both the climate and commercially.

Architectural landmark: the shard river view © gilly
The Shard River View © Gilly

What are the best architectural landmarks in London to visit as an architect?

Listed below are the best architectural landmarks in London to visit as an architect:

  • Buckingham Palace: Buckingham Palace is a premier architectural landmark in London for architects due to its historical significance and architectural splendor. Originally built for the Duke of Buckingham in 1703 and transformed into a royal palace by George IV, its design is a culmination of the work of noted architects like John Nash and Edward Blore. The palace’s neoclassical style, evident in its iconic façade and the famous balcony, offers a study of royal architectural evolution. Its staterooms, public-facing façade, and the changing of the guard ceremony provide insights into both historical and contemporary architectural practices in royal residences.
  • The British Museum: The British Museum is pivotal for architects studying the integration of historic structures with modern design. The Great Court, redesigned by Norman Foster and opened in 2000, transformed the museum’s central courtyard into a dynamic, covered public space. The roof, a glass and steel structure, allows natural light to flood the interior. This museum is an example of traditional architecture with contemporary design, demonstrating how modern interventions can enhance historical buildings.
  • St Paul’s Cathedral: St Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, is a landmark for architects interested in classical architecture and its influence on cityscapes. Completed in 1710, its dome is an engineering marvel, influencing church architecture worldwide. The cathedral’s design, embodying the grandeur of the English Baroque style, offers insights into the construction techniques of the time and Wren’s architectural vision. Its presence in London’s skyline makes it a symbol of architectural resilience and innovation.
  • 30 St Mary Axe (The Gherkin): 30 St Mary Axe, known as The Gherkin, is a significant visit for architects studying sustainable skyscraper design. Designed by Norman Foster and completed in 2003, its shape and diagrid structure make it a standout in London’s skyline. The building’s eco-friendly features, including natural ventilation systems, represent a shift towards sustainability in urban architecture, making it a model for future skyscraper designs.
  • The Royal Pavilion, Brighton: The Royal Pavilion in Brighton is a remarkable example of Indo-Saracenic Revival architecture. Designed by John Nash and completed in 1823, its Indian-inspired design marked a significant departure from traditional British architecture. The Pavilion’s decorated interiors and exteriors showcase a fusion of styles and make it a study of opulent and imaginative design.
  • The Tate Modern: The Tate Modern, a masterful example of adaptive reuse, is crucial for architects interested in transforming industrial spaces into cultural venues. Herzog & de Meuron’s conversion of the former Bankside Power Station, completed in 2000, maintains the industrial essence while introducing contemporary elements. The Tate Modern represents how architectural innovation can repurpose existing structures, offering a new life and function, which is increasingly relevant in urban development.
  • The Lloyd’s Building: The Lloyd’s Building is a must-visit for architects interested in this architectural movement. Designed by Richard Rogers and completed in 1986, its external services and modular, prefabricated construction challenge conventional architectural norms. The building’s futuristic design and functional aesthetics have made it a symbol of innovation in commercial architecture.
  • Westminster Palace and Big Ben: Westminster Palace, particularly the iconic Big Ben, is a fundamental site for architects studying Gothic Revival architecture. Reconstructed by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin after a fire in 1834, it represents a revival of the Gothic style adapted for a modern legislature. The complex’s stonework, pointed arches, and detailed ornamentation offer insights into 19th-century design and craftsmanship, making it a key example of historicist architecture in a political context.

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