Making a stand together – the Shard and No. 49a

At last it's almost finished and I saw a great description of it the other day. 'A tapering glass structure that reaches up and up and up before melting into the heavens, its mood constantly changing with the light ...'

Sure, it's going to be controversial; new architecture invariably is, although I haven't heard anyone call it a princely carbuncle yet. Given its glorious slenderness, detractors will have to come up with something more suitably derogatory.

'Melting into the heavens, etc, etc,' that's how I'm going to think of our new house in the Waveney valley from now on.

We will make a stand together. Me and Renzo Piano. His Shard (or London Bridge Tower as it is more prosaically known) and my Place (or No. 49a as the Royal Mail has it listed). We will be in favour of striking modernity, make a stand against unimaginative mass production and be ambivalent towards the replication of tired tradition and Palladian pillars. When I come to think about it, I can't actually speak for Renzo although I could argue that his work speaks for itself.

As for me, I have always loved brave new buildings, especially now that we have been responsible for an albeit miniature one to live in. It's slow, sometimes painful, always over-budget and behind schedule progress often seemed to be a microcosm of the troubled ten year gestation of Piano's Shard. The South Bank's new sentinel defied global financial meltdown and survived English Heritage's accusations of being a blot on the London landscape; an affront to Wren's St Paul's.


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As a youngster working overseas for the first time in Paris, I recall being in awe of the soaring new buildings of La D�fense and later the Pompidou Centre – also, as it happens, along with Britain's Richard Rogers, the work of Renzo Piano. I wondered why London couldn't be as brave. To be fair, it wasn't far behind. Fitzrovia's then so exciting Post Office tower with its revolutionary revolving restaurant overtook St Paul's as the capital's tallest building in 1962. Rogers began piping-in his own inside-out Lloyds building in the City's Lime Street in the 1970s; the same period that the giant, if less architecturally impressive, NatWest Tower first greeted East Anglian visitors as they approached it down the Mile End Road. More recently, the Gherkin stuck a big green pickled cucumber of a finger up at the IRA which, a decade earlier in 1992, had bombed the old Baltic Exchange on the St Mary Axe site where it now stands.

I spent a bit of time in Manchester, much admiring the then new Urbis centre, another fine building constructed in defiance of urban bombing. Its five floors celebrating urban living proved to be a bit of a white elephant but it's about to reopen to assured popularity as the National Football museum.

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Good architecture is good at defiance. It achieves all but impossible feats of engineering at impossibly unaffordable budgets but is ultimately uplifting, renewing, re-energising and just downright good for the soul. Spain may now be among the economically impoverished men of Europe but take a trip to Bilbao; and not just for the stainless steel whirl of the Guggenheim.

Good old Norwich too has not been left as far in the past as its more famed reputation as an historic city suggests. Indeed, the magnificent art deco City Hall was built at the cutting edge of modernist design in the 1930s (it is a pity about its county counterpart of which one might say only that it stands out on the approach from the southern bypass).

The UEA's concrete (the building, not the eponymous student newspaper) is iconic and one of the best examples of successful brutalist architecture I can think of. Its site also plays host to Norman Foster's finer but equally exciting Sainsbury Centre, surely the world's most beautiful aircraft hangar and a deserving repository for Robert and Lisa Sainsbury's priceless public art collection.

On the commercial front, Chapelfield is less than edifying but the city at least had the good sense to put The Mall under the ground. It's a bit of a pity that Norwich Union didn't follow suit as it bartered its jobs-for-nondescript-offices way through the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

We have too, the magnificent Millennium Library, controversially arisen from the ashes of its unprepossessing predecessor. Other than the library itself, I still find the interior disappointing, failing to live up to its pre-build billing, but it should be forgiven a few shortcomings for the vibrancy of the activity on its apron and the gloriously shining reflection it provides of St Peter Mancroft.

I'm pleased that our edgy new house – from which, if I stretch my neck far enough through its 'tapering glass structure that reaches up and up and up before ... blah, blah', I can see the Waveney rushing in its narrow flood towards Beccles – got finished at about the same time as the Thames-side Shard. I don't know if, like our Place, it had a few problems with its piling, or a bit of bother with the floor and garage door but I'm pretty sure that future generations will think they were both worth the bother.

Neither resorted to supermarket-style panels of un-knapped flints nor pallidly mimicked and mocked Tudor, Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian period patterns. We and, I suspect, Renzo Piano are proud of that.

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