Renzo Piano: 'The Shard will be a sensor of London'
The designer of the Shard talks about his tower, his love for an old architectural flame – and boat-building
What are the most important things that the Shard does for London?
Bringing attention back to Southwark. I thought this was a good idea from [former mayor] Ken Livingstone, that you balance the energy of the City by putting something strong on the south bank, in the more poor part of the city. If you are driving around, bicycling around, walking around, you have a new orientation point. I receive many messages from people about this: it is a kind of lighthouse in London. It is quite a surprising element, and providing surprise and wonder is not essential, but it is not a bad thing to do.
It will be the first publicly accessible tall building in London. You have others, but they are not as accessible as this. We have been talking about this from the beginning – making a vertical city, one that does not shut its doors in the evening, that is alive 18 hours a day.
It will change with the weather. I always thought this tower will be a sensor of the city, reflecting the mood. What the Shard does for London is a list of things. I was aware of risks with the project when I took it on, but the best things in life are always a little dangerous.
When people say that it's too prominent, or that it intrudes too much on views of St Paul's Cathedral, do you understand their position?
It's visible, that's for sure. The point is, fundamentally: is this a bad presence or a good presence? I kept saying – and I keep saying – that I think the presence of St Paul's in London is great because it is subtle, intelligent, light, but in a completely different way, because centuries ago it was a totally different story. I'm not mad, I'm not saying that the Shard is like St Paul's… forget it; but it's a way to express a presence.
Is this going to be negative, banal, stupid, arrogant, or not? I'm still wondering. But I have the feeling more and more that this building will be part of London very quickly, and it will not be disturbing. It is not just my feeling, it is the feeling of many other people. In some ways I cross my fingers. As an architect, you cannot be so arrogant as to say you are 100% sure about what you do.
Since the Shard was given planning permission a lot of other towers have been approved in London. They may not all be of the same quality. Do you think it is good for London to have these towers?
I agree that the Shard contributed to opening the door to a gold rush. If you ask me if London should be full of towers, the answer would be: not necessarily. I'm not in favour and not against. But if you make a bad building that is low you don't see it too much. If you make a bad building tall you see it a lot. So there is an obligation to be good.
You don't not write a good book because people will then write bad books on the same topic. But it's a sad destiny: you open doors and then something wrong might happen.
It will cost £25 to go to the viewing gallery, which seems expensive. Would you like the entrance fee to be cheaper?
I was not happy when I heard that. I put my nose inside this question quite energetically and they explained to me that this kind of thing has this kind of price. Unfortunately, at the London Eye the price is about the same. London is a very expensive city.
There is a lot of distortion, with the idea about the building being for rich people. There will be 5,000 people working in the offices, and there is no reason to think that these people will be very rich. There will be 1,000 people per day going to restaurants at mid-rise, and there are 200 or 300 restaurants at the same price level in London. There will be thousands more visiting the viewing gallery and other parts of the building.
The other idea is that there is something wrong with the money for the Shard coming from Qatar. I never understood this idea, as if there is money that smells, or money that has a perfume. I found it a bit moralistic.
Is it important to you to have designed the tallest building in London and (for a while) in Europe?
Honestly, this is less important. I don't care if someone else does something taller. It happened to be like that.
Is there anything you would change about the Shard?
This is a very, very bad question. When you do something in life you are never totally happy. I'm not going to tell you what I would change – that would be like a suicide for me. I would probably try to be even more crystalline, a bit more radical.
What are you doing next?
We're doing so many schemes. In Los Angeles we're doing a building for the Academy that gives out the Oscars. In New York we're doing a campus for Columbia University and a fantastic centre for brain research. But we're also doing a little hospital for children in Uganda, paid for with our own money, and a school in Costa Rica. Sometimes you do things that are very visible, sometimes almost invisible.
Do you plan to retire?
I will never stop. In architecture you should live for 150 years, because you have to learn in the first 75 years. At my age, if you are lucky enough to be in good shape it is a magic age.
Do you enjoy revisiting your old buildings?
The Pompidou Centre was a young passion. It is 300 yards from my Paris office, so I go there for lunch at least every month. But I have so many buildings. I don't want to be romantic, but one of the most important things is to have happy buildings… it's like having a family with a lot of children.
You also love sailing: is that an escape from architecture or a continuation of it?
The boat I have now is number six. I built the first one when I was 18, by buying the Daily Mirror – which had the plan of a little sailing boat inside. I did it in the garage myself. I still designed number six, but I didn't build it myself, with my own hands.
Every year I spend one month just sailing, but I still work when I'm on the boat. You never separate work from leisure. A boat is like a magic world, like a little island.
The Shard opens to the public on 1 February.
Last edited: 13/02/2016