Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Palace of capitalism that towers over the capital

IT used to be said in Warsaw that the best view in Poland was to be had from the top of the Palace of Culture and Science. It was the only place from which you couldn’t see the Palace of Culture and Science.
Sixty years after building began, the “palace” – actually an exhibition centre and office block – still dominates the skyline of Warsaw. I rather like it, in its overstated grand Soviet manner. But I can understand why the Poles were not so keen.
The building was an unwanted “gift” to them from “the people of the Soviet Union” – most of whom undoubtedly knew nothing about it.
As such, it was a colossal symbol of Poland’s domination by its powerful neighbour. In the beginning, it even bore the name of Joseph Stalin, almost as if the great dictator himself were squatting massively in the Poles’ midst, looking down on their every move.
If I were a Londoner, especially one from the poorer south side of the river, I’d feel much the same way about the latest excrescence to blot the city’s skyline.
After the grand official opening of the Shard last week, mayor Boris Johnson was enthusing about the view from its 1,000ft summit.
I suspect his claim that you could see France from up there was a slight exaggeration, in typical Boris style. But I’m sure the view from the top is magnificent.
Apart from anything else, it’s one place in London from which you can’t see the Shard.
Now, I’m not an architecture snob of the Prince Charles variety. I like London’s previously most notable modern building, the Gherkin, and I seem to be one of few who rather admires Norman Foster’s City Hall, leaning asymmetrically towards Tower Bridge. I’m quite fond of Paris’s eccentric Pompidou Centre, which seemed so way-out in the 1970s when it was built by, among others, the Italian Renzo Piano.
But there is something aggressive about the Shard. An offensive “up yours” quality not only to its pointy appearance but to its very existence on its particular site.
Piano was called in to give celebrity-architect status to the plan for a monster skyscraper rising from the downtrodden streets of Southwark.
None of the locals wanted it there. The local authorities and heritage organisations all opposed it. John Prescott, then deputy prime minister, over-ruled their objections on the grounds of Piano’s “exceptional design”.
So there it now is, western Europe’s tallest building, nearly twice the height of the Gherkin, towering imperiously over the city.
The Shard doesn’t look like a London building at all. It looks like a bit of aggressively modern Bahrain, Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Doha dumped by the Thames. As incongruous there as its lookalikes are in the Arabian desert.
And that, indeed, is exactly what it is. Not an English building but a Qatari one – 95 per cent owned by the tiny but oil-rich emirate.
Qatar – the little country that bought football in the shape of the 2022 World Cup – has bought itself a London pad. From which it can look down, literally and figuratively, on the whole self-important, self-satisfied City.
The get-rich-quick dominated by the get-richer-quicker.
Perhaps significantly, the Shard isn’t in the City. Its big feet are planted in relatively poor soil on the other side of the river. But – just like its close relatives in the Gulf – it won’t be much inhabited by the poorer people in whose midst it has been set.
The only working-class Londoners ever likely to enter its 72 habitable floors will be those who clean its floors, empty its bins and fix its lifts. They may serve in its five-star hotel and starred restaurant, but not eat or sleep there.
The view from its £50million penthouse flats stretches to the sea to both south and east. All of London will be visible, but the people down there scarcely at all.
I wouldn’t mind having a look out from the Shard’s observation deck, 800ft up (below the posh flats), but at £25 a go it’s a bit steep for me.
That ticket price is either (a) a way of keeping the plebs out, (b) a way of moving money from poor pockets to rich ones, or (c) both.
A perfect example of capitalism, in fact.
The foreign-backed capitalism that now looms over London in just the way foreign-backed Communism loomed over Soviet-era Poland. And about as welcome.

So that’s why it’s called a court

WELL done, Andy Murray. Even if he couldn’t quite finish the job against arguably the best player the world has seen, he did enough to prove that the country that invented tennis and still hosts its premier tournament isn’t always and inevitably useless at it.
But if you ever wanted to know why Britain lags behind at the sport it loves so obsessively for a fortnight every year, a look up at the toffs’ box during Murray’s semi-final would have provided a clue.
Enjoying the best seats in the house, and the deference of those around them, were one prince, one princess, a duke, two duchesses, a viscount, a viscountess, three ladies, a lord, three knights and an excellency. And you thought this was a democracy.

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