Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
Observation decks can be good business, and The Shard in London hopes to cash in.
In 2011, through an unusual disclosure of company finances, two interesting facts emerged about the Empire State Building. First, its owners make little to no profit renting the 102-story building’s nearly 3,000,000 square feet of office space. Second, they haul in around $60 million a year in profit from its observation deck.
Nearby Rockefeller Center, whose "Top of the Rock" observation deck reopened eight years ago, is projected to draw in about $25 million in annual profit on its spectacular view. And bidding is currently underway to operate an observation deck at the forthcoming One World Trade Center, which could be the granddaddy of them all.
What would happen in a similarly large, wealthy and tourist-trafficked city where one building had a virtual monopoly on the best view? Look no further than London, where the observation deck at the Shard opens Friday.
Book your ticket online, and for $40 ($48 in person), you can enjoy a view of London that was, until now, reserved for airplane travelers. The highest publicly accessible view of the city has been 443 feet above ground at the apex of the London Eye. The platform at the Shard is 800 feet high.
A visit also costs twice as much as a trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower. At $40 per adult and $30 per child -- $170 for a family of five – the View from the Shard, as the glass-walled 68, 69 and 72 floors will be called, is going to make Paris's 19th century landmark look like a lemonade stand.
That’s what former London mayor and big-time Shard partisan Ken Livingstone thinks. He has called on Boris Johnson to subsidize trips to the tallest building in Western Europe, fearing that the high prices sour his vision of a tower for the people.
But if it were that easy to make a fortune in the business of seeing things from high places, more buildings would be in the game. Like a gangly center on opening day, the Shard has a height advantage but little experience. And buildings with lucrative observation businesses aren’t just tall; they're iconic.
"One building's views are just as good as the next," says Rutgers professor Jason Barr, who studies the economics of skyscrapers. "You have to have some sort of marquee branded status to make an observation deck work. Who’s going to buy a t-shirt that says 'I went to the top of the AXA Equitable Life Insurance Building?'"
And, Barr notes, they require a gamble up front, or a costly mid-life makeover. Observation-equipped towers need separate lobbies, separate elevator shafts, and a whole lot of infrastructure behind the scenes to care for hordes of tourists.
The Shard has invested in three stories of views, and those views are unique. But is it famous enough to pack the elevators day after day -- and deal enough merchandise to bring in the dough?
The Shard may have become an icon before even opening -- and not just according to its own website.
The writer Will Self, in a piece for the BBC describing his own morbid sense of fascination with the new building, pegged this as the crux of the building's essence. "With its catchy nickname, and gross simplification of form," he wrote, "it's just the latest exemplar of what the architectural critic Owen Hatherley has characterised as the boosterist cliche of creating structures that are simultaneously a logo and an icon."
"It's a big deal," says Ian Stephens of Saffron Consultants, which has done branding work for the city. "It's on the South Bank of the Thames, which is historically the wrong side the river. What the Shard will do in the long term is extend Central London southwards. There's no icon -- and this puts a massive icon squarely on the South Bank."
Tourist maps, commonly centered around the parks and museums of the West End, will no longer be able to ignore the South Bank. Plus, Stephens says, the Shard may be corporate, but it's also quirky in a way that appeals to London's sense of self. "That comes through in the design, and in the name," he says. "The Shard. And the other one's called the Gherkin. You wouldn't see that in Dubai; you'd see grander names."
The marketing team is clearly doing its best to write the building into the greater mythology of London. The Chief Executive of the View from the Shard, Andy Nyberg, is a veteran of the viewing scene. He was Director of Operations at the Willis Tower, the tallest building in the U.S. He also developed "At the Top," the view from the Burj Khalifa.
In the ground floor galleries, visitors will find quotes about the city from personalities as diverse as Samuel Johnson and Groucho Marx. At the 33rd floor elevator lobby, they test their knowledge of London with clues like "True cockneys are born to the sound of these bells," and "Writers and artists, thinkers and doers at rest just up this road."
"The Shard is following in the footsteps of neighbouring Southwark Cathedral," the press release announces, "which itself was the tallest building in London during the 17th century."
It's almost enough to make you forget the building is owned by the State of Qatar.
But that's the game. In New York, Barr says, the show 30 Rock has done wonders for the Top of the Rock. He suggested, half-joking, that "the Empire State Building managers might want to pitch a new sitcom called 'Empire State,' about a bunch 20-somethings who go to NYU and all work in the souvenir shop at the top of the building."
Maybe that's what the Shard needs -- it can't merely quote the best British writers in its halls, it needs a star turn of its own from Ian McEwan or Zadie Smith. Short of that, if they're still having trouble filling the space, the owners could rent it out for the next season of Big Brother.