The Shard is pinnacle of London's redevelopment, opens its viewing platform to the public

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The Shard is pinnacle of London's redevelopment, opens its viewing platform to the public
The recently-completed Shard tower is seen on the south bank of the river Thames in central London. The Shard -- western Europe's tallest skyscraper -- opens its viewing platform to the public on February 1, 2013 giving unrivalled views over London and defiantly snubbing critics of the gigantic tower. AFP PHOTO / LEON NEAL.

By: Denis Hiault

LONDON (AFP).- The Shard, which opened its doors to the public on Friday, is western Europe's highest skyscraper but also the pinnacle of the transformation of London's long-neglected south bank of the River Thames.

The vertiginous public viewing platform, which is expected to attract one million visitors a year, offers unrivalled vistas of the British capital and is the perfect place to survey the huge changes in the neighbourhood.

Towering 310 metres (1,017 feet) above the skyline, the Shard is an arrow of glass piercing the clouds and a symbol of wealth in an area that for centuries has been overshadowed by its affluent rivals in the west, centre and north of London.

The platform is the first part of Italian architect Renzo Piano's building to open, and over the coming months its vast new office space, five-star hotel, restaurants and luxury apartments will slowly come to life.

While the design has been controversial, the tower -- 95 percent financed by Qatar -- has also attracted criticism because of the sense that its 8,000 future inhabitants are unaffected by the global economic crisis.

The £30 ($47, 35-euro) ticket price for the viewing platform does nothing to dispel this image, but the people behind the Shard are unapologetic.

"The wonderful thing about London is, in many ways, it never stops," William Matthews, a project architect in Piano's team, told AFP. "In some ways, British trade, the idea of commerce, and business, is really in our bones."

Peter John, leader of the local Southwark council, said: "It has really been a story of regeneration and renaissance."

The area on the south side of London Bridge was relatively prosperous in Roman times, but for centuries afterwards it was viewed as a seedy district beyond the city walls where the law held thin.

Travellers passed through brothels, inns and gambling dens, and residents festered among "every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage", as Charles Dickens put it in his 1838 novel "Oliver Twist".

The demise of London's shipping trade from the 1960s to the 1980s accentuated the area's poverty and the average household income among Southwark's 290,000 inhabitants today remains one of the lowest in Britain.

Nonetheless, in the last 25 to 30 years, the change in the area has been staggering, according to council leader Peter John.

Wharf-side warehouses with names evoking the British empire and the goods sailing into London from around the world, such as East India Wharf or Tea Trade Wharf, have been transformed into swanky New York-style loft flats.

Millions of square metres of office space have been constructed in cathedrals of glass across the river from the Tower of London, including Norman Foster's City Hall and Terence Conran's Design Museum.

The once unremarkable Borough Market has been transformed into a foodies' heaven, while the Tate Modern, constructed within a vast former power station on the river in 2000, is now the most popular contemporary art gallery in the world.

"But the Shard takes it to new levels," said John. "It really symbolises where the opportunities are for jobs, and leisure, and new housing."

He said the influx of a population with plenty of purchasing power will boost the whole area, saying: "I think the positives outweigh the negatives."

Many locals are not so enthusiastic.

Reverend Charlie Moore, rector of St Mary Magdalene Church in nearby Bermondsey, said "a lot of people have been forced to leave" as the redevelopment, including several gastropubs and posh shops, have sent rents sky-high.

And the further south you go, the louder the objections.

The Heygate Estate, comprising huge concrete blocks of social housing, once housed 3,000 people but now stands empty and awaiting demolition as part of a major regeneration programme in the Elephant and Castle area.

A campaigner for the Heygate residents, teacher Jerry Flynn, complains that the plans include far less social housing than before.

"It will mean the people who cannot afford to live here, working-class families and low income families, will no longer be able to live here. It was a traumatic process," he told AFP.

"We would like a regeneration that spread the benefits a little more widely."

© 1994-2013 Agence France-Presse

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