This week I ask you all to face the metropolis of Old London Town, home to the smog of Victorian industry; home to Holmes, to Jekyll, home to Jack the Ripper; Old London Town in which Blake’s Chimney Sweeps and harlots wept through which the chartered Thames did flow….
Old London Town which this week unveiled a new monolith to modernity, forged of modern glass, steel and chrome, The Shard. A chorus of phallic adjectives and verbs seem to have hailed the birth of this monster: it is invariably thrusting and proud, erect and erected, making Mr Grey look to the floor in shame.
Apparently the tallest building in Europe and a shade shorter than the Eiffel Tower – why is that not a building? Or have I misunderstood the figures? – The Shard is an unmistakeable feature now of our London skyline.
But, let us turn to that word shard.
It is a deeply resonant word evoking images of sacred objects broken up to prevent their powers being used for evil – and no doubt being pursued by Lara Croft or Drake or Indiana Jones. It suggests the existence of some traumatic event that has broken an object asunder and all that remains is a shard. Shards may be the broken remnants of something whole yet the word suggests that they retain done element of power or threat.
And the sound of the word itself is evocative. We breathe rather than enunciate the initial /ʃɑ/ sound, rolling it around our mouth, teeth parted, throat open, a sound that could continue indefinitely – or for as long as we have breath in our lungs! And finally the long stretched /ɑ/ is cut off, shorn and snipped by the sudden biting down on the plosive /d/.
If we return to the architectural monolith of the building, we recognise it’s modernity and it’s thrust towards the future. Yet, if we turn to its name we find it’s history dates back – as a word – back into time: prior to Victoria, prior to Elisabeth, prior to Viking invasions, we have been using this word since the 12th century at least. It derives from the Old English sceard and Proto-Germanic skardas.
And so we have a symbol of modernity named with an ancient word; soaring above and rooted in ancient streets, its lineaments composed of modern materials; futuristic ambition rooted in ancient memories.
Not a bad metaphor for the city itself!