London super-skyscraper The Shard (pictured above, from a recent bike ride) joined the city’s skyline in 2012. It stands at over 1,000 feet, and is currently the tallest building in the European Union – and, in our mainly low-rise city, pops up everywhere you look.
I can see it from the window of the building I live in in north-east London, and at various points of my train journey to work in south London. I’ve recently been surprised to see it emerging by the Albert Memorial and while I was biking to the cinema in Chinatown.
In London, as elsewhere, tall buildings certainly make their presence felt and, perhaps for this reason, we imbue them with all kinds of symbolic significance.
They are symbols of civic pride – in London, going up the Shard, the London Eye, or the Gherkin and taking a good look at out city below is often a way of marking a special occasion and just celebrating where we live. That’s partly of course because tickets for any of these are expensive, and often hard to get hold of at busy times (or at all in the case of the Gherkin), which reflects the elitist aspects of the presence of these constructions.
The wealthy and well-connected can not only afford tickets more easily, but also have enhanced access to these buildings through corporate events and also the expensive restaurants, hotels and apartments that buildings like the Shard tend to host.
Tall buildings in New Orleans, a city long famous for its beautiful architecture, are also both treasured landmarks and symbols of social tensions.
More high-rise living is part of the in some ways controversial process of reshaping and gentrification of the city that has accelerated since Hurricane Katrina. Upcoming changes to zoning laws could lead to more skyscraper hotels for New Orleans’ significant business and holiday travel trade, and more high-rise blocks in a city where, as in London, house prices are rising alarmingly.
I’d also like to mention one of the tallest buildings in New Orleans’ history, whose memory was recently rescued from obscurity by one of the city’s pre-eminent geographers and historians, Richard Campanella. New Orleans’ Shot Tower, completed in 1883, was 214 feet tall and was built to be used as a funnel down which molten lead would be dropped, solidifying during the fall into globules that would cool and set in a pool of water at the bottom to later be used as ammunition.
Campanella writes that, like the Shard today, the building was a significant local landmark: “Its prominence and the novelty of its purpose made the Shot Tower locally famous. Citizens used it as a spatial reference (e.g., “near the Shot Tower,” “between the Shot Tower and Lee Circle”), as we use landmarks like the Superdome or the High Rise to orient ourselves today.” The New Orleans public were also able to go up the tower, giving them a new perspective on their city unavailable anywhere else at that time.
Like today’s high rises, the Shot Tower was also connected to the social tensions of its time, having given a notorious local criminal group, the Shot Tower Gang, its name. Eventually the tower became regarded as a social and environmental hazard and was demolished in 1905.
Its story reminds me of that of the 385 feet tall Centre Point tower, located near Tottenham Court Road tube station at what I think of as the almost perfect centre of the city and which is also the site of a former gallows. It was once a flagship commercial building, then a symbol for the plight of homeless people in the city and the greed of the property industry, as it remained empty for nearly a decade after its construction and has never been fully utilised.
Its demise and that of the Shot Tower are reminders that while tall buildings tend to attract attention and act as powerful lightning rods for the issues of their communities, it is also in the nature of these enormous and fragile constructions to be particular susceptible to redundancy, decay, demolition and, ultimately, being usurped by something brighter, better and, inevitably, taller. Perhaps it is in this sense that they’re the most towering examples of the way in which the environments we live in function.