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‘The Belly of an Architect’ and the Stirling Prize

Renzo Piano’s sketch for the Shard
Renzo Piano Building Workshop

In the 1987 film “The Belly of an Architect,” the protagonist has a bad stomach ache, his wife is pregnant, and he’s tasked to design a show for neoclassical architect Etienne-Louis Boullee, who based his rotundas and domes on human anatomy. Clearly, the film is about bellies - one cramping, the other expanding. It’s also a nifty metaphor for an artist’s creative struggles.

This film came to mind on news of the shortlist for The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Stirling Prize for the best new building of 2014.. Imagine all the stomach aches in the architects striving to design winning buildings.

Criteria for the prize took in design excellence and its significance in the evolution of architecture and one of the conquering buildings calls out for discussion: London's Shard by Renzo Piano, whose credits include Centre Georges Pompidou and the New York Times Building.

The Shard, an 87-story tower also known as Shard of Glass, sits on a small lot in the middle of the city. As stated by one of the award judges, Piano’s triumph was creating a thing of beauty in a cramped space.

Renzo Piano is such a successful architect, maybe he doesn’t get cramps, but his Shard is certainly causing bellyaching among some Londoners.

Russell Gray, leader of an organization called Bermondsey Village Action Group, has said, “It's just a great big pyramid of glass and steel. There's nothing intrinsically endearing about it."

Harry Mount wrote in the Telegraph U.K. that the Shard is just another example of the "blank, unadorned, ultra-simplistic, art-free planes of steel and glass expanded to a massive scale…that scale becomes a bullying, destructive thing."

The British daily, The Guardian, summed up the brickbats this way: “it has stabbed London in the heart: it is too tall, it destroys the scale of the city, it disrupts historic views, it is in the wrong place, it is a waste of energy – a monument to greed, money, inequality, foreign influence and broken Britain.

What “foreign influence”? Spires are practically an English tradition. The Salisbury Cathedral, with one of the highest spires of its time anywhere on earth, was built six centuries ago. The word spire even comes from an Old English word (spir).

Granted, the soaring height of the Shard overshadows the city skyline, including the Tower of London, Parliament Square and St. Paul’s Cathedral. And granted, this sky-poking superstructure earns its nickname – Shard - for its pointy glazed form, said to look like it’s jutting out of the Thames River like an iceberg.

But there’s a plus in the Shard’s great height. As noted in this column when The Shard was constructed, there’s public viewing gallery on the 72nd floor, not unlike the one at the Empire State building. So maybe the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryans of the British Isles could find romance in their own race-to-the- sky building.

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