John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Urban explorers recently climbed the tallest building in the European Union. Here's what they saw.
Construction on the European Union's tallest building, the Shard, will be finished around the beginning of summer. But one group of urban explorers couldn't wait that long to test out the view from its highest levels.
The Shard has been a tempting but dangerous prospect for trespassers since building commenced in 2009. As one of its recent Edmund Hillarys explains at Silent U.K., it's "poorly positioned" next to a highly trafficked train station and protected by a 15-foot-tall, camera-festooned fence. Notice the guy didn't mention anything about security guards: When his crew finally seized the opportunity to crack the Shard in December, they saw one – hunched over a TV in his security hut and apparently oblivious to the CCTV screens.
Understanding that this might be their only shot, the extralegal explorers quickly scurried past this man and accessed the tower's main staircase. Then they began the laborious process of climbing up to the 76th floor, four stories above the observation deck. (A spire takes the Shard's height up to 1,016 feet, or 95 stories, making it the second-tallest structure in the U.K. behind the Emley Moor transmitting station.) During their climb another security guard intercepted a straggler, but the main group went undetected as the stairs turned into ladders that finally led outside to the chilly night, where the urban ninjas were greeted by Britain's highest-ever crane.
Opinions differ on the view from Renzo Piano's glassy megasplinter. Bradley Garrett, who recently posted a series of incredible pictures on his Place Hacking blog, seemed to enter a state of zen when confronted by the sight of a miniature city spread out like carpeting at his feet:
As I climbed up on the counterweight of the crane, my breath caught. It was a combination of the icy wind and the sheer scale of the endeavor that shocked me. Marc was looking down at London Bridge station and whispered, “the train lines going into London Bridge look like the Thames, it’s all flow.” Slowly, I pulled myself to the end of the counter weight and peered over the edge. Indeed, we were so high, I couldn’t see anything moving at street level. No buses, no cars, just rows of lights and train lines that looked like converging river systems, a giant urban circuit board.
But the explorer from Silent U.K. was underwhelmed by the photographic opportunities, writing:
The wind howled, the crane upon which we stood creaked and swayed, London stretching as far as the eye could see. We were high, extremely high. Actually, we were too high. While the initial view was breathtaking, and believe me it was, once the adrenaline and satisfaction of what had been accomplished subsided, we slowly discovered that this view was for the most part, a photographic nightmare.... Its difficult to explain, I tried to put my view into word, but nothing I wrote was able to convey it.
After spending half an hour sucking in the rare atmosphere of the pinnacle, the group chugged back down all those stairs and slipped out, again undetected. They waited to post photos until this week because, to trust this BBC report, they wanted to make multiple incursions onto the property without alerting the authorities. The Shard has since announced that it's tightened security; for folks who want a glimpse of London from the top of the world, this interactive panorama from the building's website will have to suffice.