Byline: Russell Harris ; Robert Llewellyn
Y OU would have to be dull of soul not to recognise the majesty of the Shard of Glass building currently being constructed at London Bridge.
When finished the Shard will be Europe's tallest building, standing 310 metres (1,017ft) tall, and is about to bring transformational change to the area, unimaginable a decade ago.
No single building will have had such a significant effect on a London neighbourhood since 1991, when 1 Canada Square was built in Docklands. But it may not have risen at all were it not for the legal acumen of Pontlottyn-born Russell Harris QC, who has appeared in almost all of the recent Tall Building inquiries and has developed a special expertise in presenting cases involving world-class architects and architecture.
He recalls that back in the mid-1980s there was a certain fear in the City of London about tall buildings, despite such structures appearing on the skylines of Frankfurt, Chicago and New York.
In London the concern was over skyscrapers' impact on St Paul's Cathedral and other important churches and buildings. But there soon came a realisation that the Square Mile was running out of space and developers looked east to Canary Wharf where there were fewer constraints on the development of tall buildings.
"The developers of Canary Wharf decided they would go big and tall," Mr Harris said.
"As soon as they did the large legal firms and big banks wanted to go to the tall buildings."
It meant, he explained, that the City had to reconsider its position and it was about this time, in the late 1990s, they started to support the development of a cluster of tall buildings on the north-east fringes of the City.
Here Mr Harris breaks off from his narrative to pay tribute to the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, whose wish it was that London be seen as a world city and saw the City of London as key to that.
"He was always on the side of the bankers, irrespective of his politics," he said.
It was against this background that the first building for many years above 40 storeys was built - the now iconic structure known as the Gherkin. Speaking as one involved in the construction's legal aspects, Mr Harris said: "It was thought for a long time that this would be a one-off, but shortly after that came the inquiry into Heron Tower, in which I was involved. After a long and protracted fight with English Heritage and an expensive public inquiry, consent was granted and it set the tone for those buildings that have followed.
"You now have the even taller Pinnacle building, known as the Helter Skelter, and further south 20 Fenchurch Street, which is the only building in Europe that gets noticeably fatter as it gets taller and leans out over the river.
"That set the scene for tall buildings becoming a more integral part of the London skyline and was driven by the City wanting to keep up with Canary Wharf."
And with the cachet that came with the tallest structures it was not long before other parts of London were clamouring for such developments. Mr Harris explained: "The more impoverished parts of London began to see what tall buildings like the Gherkin were doing to the areas around the City. It was noticeable that the areas around them regenerated themselves significantly. So the councils to the south began to look at tall buildings as a tool of regeneration, a beacon of investment and that's where the Shard of Glass was born."
The key feature, he believes, about the Shard of Glass is that the scheme involved one of Europe's best architects, Enzo Piano, who had been involved in the creation of the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
"He designed not only the Shard but the area around it, which includes London Bridge Station and the surrounding streets," he said.
"It will house 10,000 workers, a five-star hotel and 10 luxury apartments."
As a result councils recognised tall building regeneration was something that worked.
Mr Harris said: "So at Blackfriars you have the Beetham Tower and the Wilkinson Eyre scheme, both incredible pieces of architectural sculpture. Further along is Coin Street, the original community development area, where the community took charge. So you have the community itself calling for, and getting, a tall building."
He added: "Since 1999 you have tall buildings go up in the City and on the South Bank that have changed the landscape of London from all viewpoints, whether it's Primrose Hill to the north or Croydon to the south."
Despite his long sojourn in England, first as a student at St John's College Cambridge, then as a barrister in London, Russell Harris has never forgotten his roots, which lie in Pontlottyn, which he describes as "east of Fochriw and south of Rhymney", for whom he played rugby while a student.
Now seems an appropriate time to ask how what is happening in London can be rolled out into Wales? "The thing about London is that it is a world city, probably the world city not withstanding the depression," he said.
"What you have in Wales is a very new capital city that heads up a devolved government confident in itself and in areas like the arts and sport. Now if a world city like London is not shy of going to the big European and world names like Piano to create masterpieces and large chunks of townscape that people will enjoy, then it seems to me Cardiff shouldn't be either."
Going into the specifics, he said: "What we have in Cardiff is some very good set-piece architectural projects like the Wales Millennium Centre, the new School of Music and Drama, the Millennium Stadium.
Unfortunately they are all isolated in terms of the quality they bring to their environment. They are set pieces within a very small setting and what you don't have is an overall plan for large parts of Cardiff that will make a difference."
He added: "The new shopping centre works well but in architectural terms is not a masterpiece. When I leave the station the skyline I look at is very unimpressive. You have the Millennium Stadium in front of you then there's nothing else. If you turn around over the top of the station which should, in any sustainable city, be the main location for a high-quality sense of place, there is nothing, just the bus station in front, fields of car parking behind and some very undistinguished mid-rise buildings."
His argument is if London can bring some of those high quality, place-changing architects to sprinkle their magic, then why can't Cardiff? The impact of architecture on regeneration, he contends, has been shown to be huge. It's worked in Manchester and it could work in Cardiff if we have the quality of architecture, the location and function the city calls for.
Ultimately, Mr Harris acknowledges, it all boils down to money. But as he points out, such developments have proved drivers of investment in some of London's most deprived boroughs. So the message to Cardiff is don't be shy to bring in worldclass expertise for what should be a world-class city, with a dedicated business quarter, the architecture of which brings with it a sense of quality and place.
Such a renaissance, he believes, has to be driven commercially at the outset since it's politically unacceptable to believe that in the current economic climate large sums of money are gong to be spent on civic building projects.
He said: "But that doesn't mean that the city of Cardiff in conjunction with the Welsh Government can't put something together that is commercially-driven to improve the area around the station."
He added: "Since Cardiff is such a new city it doesn't have the constraints the City of London has.
"Being largely an Edwardian creation the listed buildings and conservation restraints that other cities have is not as significant here. So there's no excuse for not doing something that will make this generation proud of its architecture."
This leads him to reflect on the Wales Millennium Centre (WMC) in particular and Cardiff Bay in general.
The WMC shows how important an iconic building of quality can be. Unfortunately Mr Harris believes its reach is diluted.
He said: "The architectural quality of the buildings around it is questionable and the opportunity to have made something really good there has been missed.
"I like the area and believe it works as an entertainment venue for Cardiff but it's not a fully functioning quarter and the opportunity to do this was missed."
Which leads to his final observation on the Bay.
"Public transport is limited," he said.
"Were it a fully functioning quarter it would have had associated with it an 18-hour transport link that would drill it into the centre of the city.
"It's pleasant enough but could have been so much more.
"The apartments there are fairly anonymous and there are no meaningful day-to-day retail outlets.
"What it should have been is a fully functioning quarter well linked to Cardiff which showed the ability of planners to create something special."
Despite this criticism Cardiff is a capital city of distinction which has undergone a huge change in the right direction.
"As the seat of a devolved government the challenge now is for Cardiff to push itself further into another rank of European cities," he said.
* Russell Harris QC * The Shard dominates the London skyline. Welsh QC Russell Harris played a key role in getting the project approved…