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SITTING IN A RESTAURANT TWENTY TWO YEARS AGO, the architect Renzo Piano sketched a simple design onto a napkin, a sharp, bristling spire that would eventually knife upwards into London’s skyline as the Shard— a three hundred metre splinter of glass and concrete, vertiginously carving out the aspect of the future. From its site along the river Thames, Piano pictured it as the sail of a ship or prow of an iceberg, two opposite forces colliding in one sheer angle, one azure wreckage, an extreme visual apex without any hint of the levels submerged below.

Financed by Qatari oil revenues and raised aloft by a narrative of pragmatism and economics, the Shard presents an attractive vision of power and transparency, of globalism as a simple reality.

In his meditative film Vertical Horizons, Tom Wolseley reflects upon this monolith, expanding and complicating the way these sky-scraping statements feature in our cities and in our lives. From the origins of capitalism along the docks of London, to the rampant geological extraction of the past century, he situates the Shard at the intersection of multifarious real- ities and epochs, revealing the freight and fragmentation that underlies London as a skyline and centre of capital.

Tom Wolseley is an artist with a wide-ranging practice centred on the shifting psychological and physical composition of the city. TWIST spoke to him about his work on the Shard, the significance of high-rises, as well as the construction of both objects and identifications in urban spaces.

TWIST: First I’d just like to ask where this project originated. Why The Shard?

TOM WOLSELEY: Well the Shard as you know was sponsored by Qatar, and the question that started the project was: what is the relationship between the geologic agency of fossil fuels and the cultural, or urban event, that is in the city I live in. So it’s probably oil, finance, globalisation, London— how do those influence each other? But that was very much a starting point, I’m not going to suggest in any way I got to answering that one, because actually it got much more complicated than that, largely by politics.

The past two decades of London’s architectural iconography feels closely related to the many nicknames that endear us to buildings such as the Gherkin, the Cheese-Grater and the Walkie-Talkie— names which suggest their role as visual ornaments rather than practical structures. In your film, you refer to the Millennium Bridge, also known as the Wobbly Bridge, and how its initial instability was due to engineering models that didn’t take into account the vibrational presence of the people actually crossing it. What do you make of this relationship between functionality and the purely spectacular, symbolic value of these structures?

I think my interest is how positions arise from process. I was interested in how they could design a bridge so beautifully and perfectly, yet how it couldn’t accommodate the biological feedback loop of people using it. A reality emerges from the biological process of people walking, and a reality emerges from a certain mode of thinking about things which is engineering, and maths. And I’m not judging either one of those, but I am noting the dissonance/harmonics between the two. So I suppose that’s equating with the Shard, in that I’m trying to explore what are the realities that have invited this object to exist in the middle of our city, and they’re multiple, they’re not singular.

The Shard seems to claim a different kind of association though, overtly identifying itself with sheer, jagged verticality. But it’s name also seems kind of misleading, or at least it opens itself up 
to the kind of interrogation that your work on it has entailed— where it presents itself as monolithic and autonomous, a symbol of global capital as a simple reality, while its name literally suggests fragmentation, almost a ruin.

Yes, why is the top modelled on being unfinished? Normal skyscrapers are built around a visual model of repetition. And in a way they gain some of their power by that, they’re suggesting that the repetition of this one system can deal with anything, can carry on forever, we just have to repeat this thing— the power of a certain mode of reality to dominate everything, by sheer repetition. Whereas the Shard suggests a different modality, if you like, that it’s sort of emerging from another substrate that is already there, perhaps not unfinished but still becoming, and growing out of something. I think of a sort of petri dish, a crystal from a petri dish. So they’re both different modalities of hinting at power through ‘this is the reality’, of inferring that the reality behind these is a greater reality. One through repetition, the sort of modernist logic, and this other of the Shard through another logic, the mushroom revealing the rhizome that spreads for 300 metres below it in every direction.

There’s an inevitability or teleology associated with big cities, with skyscrapers as these valves released upwards to contain the pressure of growing populations and economies.

Certainly that’s how they’d like to make you think of it, that the Shard, for the economy, is just an inevitability of globalisation and power.

So it’s not just a napkin, with a scrawled image held up to a skyline and voila.

Well there’s the modernist thing about the pure power of will. This is why I’m interested in these material, mental and cultural landscapes, because actually modernism was largely facilitated by the energetic excess of fossil fuels. What could appear to be the sheer power of will to hold up a napkin and say ‘it shall be done’, is actually deeply embedded in complex relationships to material contingency, while advertising that it’s just willpower.

You explain in the film how skyscrapers have replaced devotional buildings as the tallest structures in our society. What does this tell us about the importance they ascribe themselves, or the fictions behind their formation and use?

Skyscrapers have arisen because of a certain field of investment and competition, which first originated in North America. Since then they have emerged for a number of different reasons, a common one being that by building them they will then invite the field of investment into their cities. And strangely enough it does work. So it’s a sort of mistake or misdirection, fake it till you make it. This is probably a dominant theme with the Shard, you say “that’s ridiculous” but it does work.

All of this takes place in such a speculative, international, abstract sense that the need for this hulking concrete tower is kind of ironic. It seems almost counter to everything it represents that it’s actually there physically.

Well that’s one question, you know, where is the greater event of the Shard? Is it its physical actual existence or is it within its investment port- folios globally? I’d be curious to know how much energy was used in constructing the Shard as opposed to supporting its spectacular global internet presence. How much energy does it take to support all the data centres? The event of the Shard, it’s a bit problematic because it’s cast as a sort of spectacle in globalisation, and it’s full of a lot of assumptions about [being financed by global capital]. In fact it was effectively underwritten by the London mayor at one point, by contracting to rent space in the as-yet unfinished building, for the Transport for London offices, whilst the project was in financial difficulties. And very often this is the case, it’s authoritative regimes that feel that by acquiring this imagery, they will invite a certain world to exist, it’s not necessarily the rabid functionality of globalisation, it’s often a different type of institution that instigates these things. Simply put, the Labour Government wanting to look like it was associated with capitalism, and efficiencies of globalisation was one of the things that prompted [the Shard] to arrive in London. The disconcerting thing with the Shard is that it is then filled with people, and it is used, and it is normalised within the city, and it becomes part of the city. The simulacra becomes the actual thing, and it becomes quite useful. I’m not defending it, but it has its utility.

It’s as if the cause and effect is reversed and then reversed again.

Indeed, depending how you frame it in different arenas, its causes and effects are very different. So if we’re looking at it from a capital point of view, and globalisation, it is instituted as a certain sort of object, if we’re looking at it from politics it's from something else, and if it's from the view of someone who lives in London it’s another entity. And all of those, collectively, produce the edifice. I think the building would like you to think it was the inevitable result of a simple financial system, but it's not, it’s a coincidence, overlapping, often dissonant conversations and narratives that happen to overlap in that place and time, and be sustained long enough for that to happen.

I just get the image of all these empty buildings, or even cities, created as models for investment, that might then conveniently become inhabited.

We have to get to the point where we take responsibility for how we construct reality— as suddenly you find out that it is the real. So that’s where it gets confusing. What terms do we want to construct the reality of our cities by, and what reality do we want to invite? If we design our cities too much for their financial utility, it will diminish their reality as places to live, work and create. Let alone their environmental cost.

When it comes to reimagining what cities might look like, how do you think our visions of the future should contend with the need for the spectacle of skyscrapers?

So when we’re discussing a Utopian or another form of city — the first word that comes to mind is complexity. You’re not just going to envision something. Visions face both ways. The Shard is a vision, that’s what it advertises itself as in some ways. So if I were to think about building cities I would embed it far more in the pragmatics of living and working within a place. I think we really need to consider what they cost us. If you weighed the true cost of the Shard, I think you’d find it was [exorbitant], and if we could actually be made aware of that we’d actually say “no, thank you very much.” But I don’t think we are aware of that. What am I trying to say? Each parochial meaning is constructed in relation to its contingency around it, and the Shard is the result of complexity, of overlapping parochial meanings in different areas contrary to what it might seem to advertise by its singular monolithic appearance.

It all starts to feel sort of illusory, the constant reference to this symbolic or speculative realm in which these buildings appear almost through economic rituals and impractical claims over urban space.

It is a symbol, it is useful as a symbol, it has use in our culture as a symbol, and I do not want to get into the position where I’m saying that’s wrong. It has a functionality and it is testament to the systems that are there. I want to be very careful that we don’t undervalue what symbols we need. We like to think that there’s a reality, and that there’s a symbolic place, but those symbols are our reality, we construct them and they serve a purpose, they do what is required. So to reinvent the city, you would have to find a dynamic by which you could evaluate and navigate your way around that need.

I suppose now I’m lifting up a napkin to make it disappear, to obscure or dismiss it, based on my own assumptions or monolithic approach to what should constitute reality, despite the fact that the Shard inescapably is.

Well that’s also a significant thing, why look at the Shard, when it really felt like we shouldn’t look at it. There was very little work done on it academically, in a way as an artist it was like that's too obvious, so it seemed to resist our inquiry, in a strange way.

At the end of Vertical Horizons you touch on a sense of the ‘extraordinary intimacy’ that the Shard could represent, when it comes to the ways all these woven contexts could allow us to think of the city in global terms, or in some way that penetrates the subjective experience of urban life. What might this kind of conscious identification with the city look like?

I think we’re completely intertwined with the city, so the conscious identification with it is in a way one of the questions of the piece: here’s a big event, how do I identify it, what field does it create? The reason I’m fascinated by cities is that they’re a celebration of mental processes, individual, group, cultural, and material processes. They’re totally enmeshed together. So for me the personal processes that we engage in are very similar and in the same field as the larger processes that invite objects like the Shard to come into our city. How do certain modes of identification [occur], how do you negotiate the Shard? If I came to the Shard as an adversary, all I would do would confirm its field of identification. The thing that most undermines the Shard is forming relationships with it. My film [was ultimately about] forming and making explicit the relationships I have with the city, as opposed to tendencies to authority, autonomy, massive monolithic statements. Complicity, with the spectacular narcissism of the Shard, in myself

VERTICAL HORIZONS features in Issue 2 of TWIST

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