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"I love Southwark" says Shard architect

"I love Southwark", declared Shard of Glass architect Renzo Piano as he began his 'sermon' in Southwark Cathedral to mark the start of the London Architecture Biennale.

Renzo Piano
Renzo Piano at the Biennale press launch on Friday morning.

Piano spoke about architecture as a struggle between practicality and spirituality. His talk was illustrated with pictures of buildings he has designed around the world.

He showed pictures of the harbour in his home city of Genoa, explaining his fascination with cranes because they "fight against gravity". Piano went on to explain that fighting against gravity is "part of the adventure" of architecture.

Talking about the Shard of Glass at London Bridge, Piano explained that "it is not a selfish building; not a mysterious affair" and that as a mixed-use development with hotels, apartments and restaurants as well as offices, it wouldn't be a building that was closed outside office hours.

He said that it would be "a building with life 24 hours a day"; a "vertical city".

The architect said that he had spent a lot of time exploring the hidden corners of Southwark whilst working on designs for the Shard. "Places tell stories. It's not true that places don't talk; architects don't listen."

Piano acknowledged that skyscrapers have a bad reputuation as "arrogant" and "mysterious" structures, but hoped that these descriptions would not apply to his own tapering tower.

The sermon concluded with the drawing of Southwark Cathedral and old London Bridge which Piano has on the wall of his office.


View from St Thomas' Street

Speaking at a press briefing for the London Architectural Biennale on Friday morning, Piano said that he didn't believe that skyscrapers were the automatic solution to increasing density in city centres.

He suggested that it was "quite rare to find a place" as suitable for a tall building as London Bridge, with its key transport links. He added that it is one of the few places where a tall building casts a shadow over the river and not houses.

Piano may surprise some when he says that he considers the 2003 public inquiry into plans for London Bridge Tower "a good thing". "You can't escape just by charming people. You have to be bloody good."

Asked about the effect of 'regeneration' on existing local communities, Piano conceded that this was "a sensitive point". He spoke about the need to respect existing layers: "The new should not kill the old".

Signor Piano's sermon was introduced by the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Colin Slee, who explained that the architect has specifically requested that his talk be given in the cathedral.

The Dean reminded the audience that "the first and longest patron of high-rise buildings is the Christian church", and pointed to the role of the tower of the building we now know as Southwark Cathedral as a "signal landmark" in the area.

He added: "All the great historical paintings of the City of London were conceived from this tower".

The Dean declared that he welcomed the construction of the Shard of Glass: "Soon I will be able to say that this cathedral has the tallest spire in the United Kingdom".

Slee said that he disliked the Shard of Glass name, preferring to think of the tower as "a spire pointing heavenwards".

Thanking Piano for his sermon, Southwark Council leader Nick Stanton said that "for far too long the river has been a barrier", and gave an upbeat assessment of Southwark's future as part of central London: "There may be poverty in Southwark, but there's no poverty of aspiration".

Gates of the City

The event also included the presentation of prizes to the winners of the Gates of the City competition, which asked Southwark school pupils to come up with new designs for the railway tunnel in Great Guildford Street.

The prize for most innovative design as well as the third and second prizes were awarded to three groups of pupils from Bermondsey's City of London Academy. The first prize was awarded to a group of students from Dulwich College.

The winning designs are on show at the Unicorn Theatre in Tooley Street until Saturday 24 June.

• Our guide to London Architecture Biennale events in SE1

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