Since it opened as part of the city's millennium celebrations in 2000, the London Eye has ruled the market when it comes to observation experiences in the British capital. But recently a new breed of towers, skyscrapers and other lofty lookouts have arrived on the scene. Standing head, shoulders – and clouds – above them all is The View from The Shard.
By Owen Ralph
Towering 310 metres over London Bridge station, The Shard comfortably snatches the titles of Western Europe’s tallest building from the 258m Commerzbank Tower in Frankfurt, and only a handful of skyscrapers in Moscow threaten to rival its dominance anywhere between the USA and Middle East. The Renzo Piano-designed structure, conceived by property developer Irvine Sellar and backed by the Qatari government, is also the first in Britain to smash the 1, 000 ft barrier.
Guests of The View From The Shard, the visitor experience which opened in February ahead of the building’s office, residential and commercial space (including a Shangri-La hotel) get access to floors 68, 69 and the 244m-high (800ft) observation deck on level 72. Here, on a good day, they can see up to 64km or 40 miles in all directions, as far the English Channel. “It's the only place in the capital you can see London in its entirety, ” says The View from The Shard’s CEO, Anders Nyberg. See for yourself in this 360-degree panorama.
Almost twice the height of any other publicly-accessible viewing platform in the city, from here even the Eye looks small. On less clear days, some visitors have been rewarded with a surreal view of London, with just a few landmarks poking through the clouds – a reminder that only aircraft can pass higher over the city. For those unlucky enough to choose one of the roughly five days a year with zero visibility, refunds or return visits tickets are provided.
As pre-booking of the experience is strongly encouraged for capacity reasons, there's an element of pot luck involved on the part of the guest, but at £24.95 (US$39/€29) they do get a £5.00 discount over the “on the day” price of £29.95. Even on the clouded afternoon Blooloop was in town, there was a steady trickle of visitors. Proof, perhaps, that the building is as big a draw as the view. Those that want immediate access, bypassing the queues, can do so for £100. This inflated price is designed to deter casual and inpatient callers, but in a city with as rich a visitor profile as London, it has had a handful of takers. In truth, the timed ticketing policy helps keep wait times to a minimum, and this is key to delivering the “premium experience” that defines The View from The Shard’s positioning.
An elaborate pre-show
When Sellar first announced his plans for a “vertical city” back in 2000, a public viewing gallery wasn’t top of his mind. In designing The Shard, the team at Renzo Piano Building Workshop was able to convince him otherwise. By the time Anders was brought on board during the building’s construction in 2011, fresh from overseeing the operation of At The Top at the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (the world’s tallest building) and previously the Sears Tower Skydeck in Toronto, plans for a wider visitor attraction were put in place. The View from The Shard branding was developed by Saatchi & Saatchi and Event Communications was invited to develop content within space originally earmarked for a car park, working with Elbow Productions (AV content), DJ Willrich (AV hardware), Benchworks (fit-out) and OmniTicket Network.
Like the 4D film that now accompanies the London Eye experience, this “elaborate pre show”, as Event’s development director Kevin Murphy calls it, helps justify the ticket price. It also enjoys the distinction of being one of the few London attractions that explicitly celebrates the city's people and places, in a slightly offbeat way.
Entering at ground level, guests are greeted at the top of the escalators by large screens with high definition video that chronicle life on the Thames and The Shard’s conception. Inside the foyer area, a series of riddles on the floor and walls describe London's boroughs and landmarks, there are quotes about the capital, whilst graphics depict famous faces in less than familiar situations. Who knew that mayor Boris Johnson had shone the shoes of predecessor and adversary Ken Livingstone? At the end of an airport-style screening area, just as guests are picking up their valuables, they see playful images of famous London criminals, and then there's a photo opportunity courtesy of Kodak.
Suddenly only sky
Inside the twin banks of lifts that whisk visitors towards the observation deck (the building itself has 43), CGI animation simulates the surrounding scenery until suddenly there is only sky. The journey is completed in two stages, with each lift moving at a speed of 6 metres per second. A stopping-off point on level 33 will eventually be complemented by restaurant and retail space.
Alighting from the lift on level 68, guests are greeted by a wall. It's there to stop them lingering, but after climbing a level higher they can look out of three-storey-windows on all sides. Tell:scopes by the Canadian company gsmprjct° allow visitors to zoom in for a more detailed look at the action. The devices also provide information in 10 languages on 200 selected landmarks. Similar features will soon be available via a View from The Shard app.
Like so much statement-making 21st Century architecture, The Shard's skin is made of glass and on reaching the partially exposed 72nd floor, visitors come into close contact with the fractured sections that give the building its name. Once there they are free to enjoy the experience as long as their will, or bladder, allows. Hidden away are some well-appointed lavatories, but they are reserved for corporate events only. Everything is kept to a minimum. It's all about The View.“It's unobstructed by anything other than clouds, ” notes Murphy. “I contrast that to a visit to the Empire State Building some years ago. It was a relatively disappointing experience, with other buildings surrounding you in all directions, and crowds of people everywhere.”
Yet Event Communications was allowed some licence in enhancing the experience by providing a bespoke soundtrack, which also plays in the lobby and lifts. Recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios it was necessary, adds Murphy, because there is very little ambient sound at the summit. However it’s also about storytelling – a little bit of audio “imaging” to help brand the experience as you try and collect your thoughts.
Open daily from 9am to 10pm, around 400 people can be admitted to The View’s upper levels at any one time, but usually it’s nearer 250 to 300. With this capacity, and a 12-month operating calendar, operator Shard Viewing Gallery Management is estimating an annual attendance of 1 million. Too many more would risk jeopardising that premium offer. After all, this is a pile it high, not sell it cheap experience. It's worth noting, however, there are further floors to be developed as a potential tourist attraction.
London will never be Dubai, Shanghai or Manhattan – and for many that is its appeal – but steadily its skyline is changing. Existing landmarks such as St Paul’s Cathedral (the capital’s tallest building for over 200 years until 1962), Tower 42 (NatWest Tower) and 30 St Mary Axe (“The Gherkin”) will soon be joined by a cluster of new skyscrapers in and around The City, the financial district across the river from The Shard. One of those will be 20 Fenchurch Street, a 37-storey, 160-metre structure that has already been nicknamed the “Walkie Talkie.” Opening in 2014, it will feature “Skygarden” at its summit. It appears London is a city capable of sustaining multiple observation experiences. Allow us to highlight some of them below.
Looking out over London
The Shard may be Western Europe's tallest building, and the latest London landmark to welcome paying guests, but it's not the only place for tourists to get a bird's eye view over the British capital.
The EDF Energy London Eye, to give it its current name, was the world's tallest observation wheel it opened in 2000. Designed by the architects Marks Barfield, the 135m-tall structure on the south bank of the River Thames opposite the Houses of Parliament now forms part of a cluster of attractions owned and operated by Merlin Entertainments including the London Dungeon and Sea Life aquarium. A 30-minute ride, complemented by a 4D pre-show, costs £19.20, cheaper if booked online.
Billed as the UK’s first urban cable car system, the Emirates Air Line opened last summer and links Greenwich Peninsula and The O2 concert venue with the Royal Docks and ExCel exhibition centre. The structure has a span of over 1km and at its highest point transports passengers 90m above the River Thames. Located towards the east of the city, the views are less spectacular than further down the Thames, but the cable car eliminates the need for a more convoluted journey by underground and overground rail. Users of Transport for London’s Oyster card system can enjoy a one-way ride for just £3.20.
Also in Greenwich, Up at The O2 allows adventurous visitors to climb across the top of the structure once known as the Millennium Dome. Guided in groups of 30, they pass along a 190m-long fabric walkway suspended between The O2’s distinctive yellow masts whilst wearing safety harnesses. A 52m observation platform provides views of Olympic Park, the Thames Barrier and Canary Wharf skyscrapers. Visitors must be at least 10-years-old, 1.2m-tall and medically and physically fit to take part. Adult tickets are £22.
Overlooking the stadium that hosted the London 2012 Olympics, the ArcelorMittal Orbit was designed by sculptor Anish Kapoor and part-funded by the world’s largest steel producer. Standing 115m tall, the distinctive red twisted steel structure incorporates two indoor viewing platforms. No public access has been available since the Olympics, but it will open again this summer to those on “Park in Progress” tours of Olympic Park and as a full time visitor attraction once transformation of the area is complete.
The revolving restaurant at the top of the 189m-tall BT Tower in central London was once amongst the tallest observation experiences in the capital but the dizzy dinners are now a thing of the past. Diners and those attending corporate events can, however, gain access to the upscale restaurant and bar facilities on the upper levels of the 180m-tall “Gherkin” in the City of London; curious members of the general public cannot. At 160-metres, the Skygarden on top of the nearby “Walkie Talkie” will take the title of London’s second tallest public viewing platform – and it will be free.
Images copyright The View from The Shard, Sellar Property Group, Owen Ralph, Steve Simons/Event Communications