Blasted slag and Dr Feelgood at London Bridge

Q. What grows at 3m per day and has roots 50m deep?
A. The Shard – destined to be 72 floors high it will be the tallest building in Europe when completed in 2012.

This magnificent building designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano had already climbed to 21 storeys high when I was invited on a site visit with the architect Cathy Stewart by Michelle Tilley of Byrne Bros who has commissioned me to design and produce artwork for the foyer of the Byrne Group who are the concrete sub contractors who are building the core structure.


What an amazing experience it proved to be – after penetrating the tight security we were kitted up with glasses, gloves, boots and high vis. jackets by Rob Moore who gave us an in-depth tour of the site. Rob shared my love of rock music and had been the tour manager of Dr. Feelgood when they had played Melbourne where – by coincidence – I had seen them play in the 1970’s – people have such multi-faceted interesting lives these days. Quite bizarre to be discussing this in a wire cage as we were pulled the side of the building, past the crane driver reading his paper, to the 21st floor with London sprawling  below on a glorious sunny spring day.

With the 2 Robs

The tour started with the 3 levels of basements we clambered down the narrow stairs into a noisy hive of activity and witnessed the rendering of the huge pillars of concrete textured with spirals and ridges (like ancient Romanesque) by the earth and clay walls of the bore holes that the concrete was forced into.

The scene was reminiscent of a Piranesi drawing – with activity deep below and high above, glimpses of glowing welding sparks, gigantic metal tubes, sheets of metal – some steely grey others golden with corrosion. It is the sheer scale of everything reminiscent of the lair of one of James Bond’s villains and the noise of all the activity – felt quite  relieved when it was time to return to ground level and ascend.

There had been an enormous ‘pour’ the previous week which had been organised along the lines of an army manoeuvre: over a gruelling 36-hour operation, 700 truckloads of concrete were deposited at the London Bridge site. The 5,500m3 single concrete pour ranks among the largest ever undertaken on a building in the capital, with trucks arriving on site at 2 min intervals from Battersea and Greenwich it marked the first major milestone in the construction.

This culmination of the building’s groundworks package has created the huge raft foundation that will support the tower. The build is a ‘top-down’ construction which involves casting the ground floor slab and excavating the ground below while work on the superstructure above continues.  Fascinating process with concerns for safety due to the busy location and the heat generated as concrete cures. A ‘secret formula’ was used and described by Don Houston (the snr. project manager of Byrne Bros, ground granulated blast furnace slag to replace 75% of the cement. Plasticisers and retardants are also added to increase the flow.    At last  – the language of artists! Which reminds me why I am there… my brief is to complete 2 pieces – one about the Shard and the other based on the Savoy Hotel re-fit which Byrne Bros. are also working on. I am off to visit the Savoy next week and can’t wait to see how things are looking there – what a contrast to a spanking new build where, as Renzo Piano so beautifully put it – one is ‘taking from the city – the air – but you give back the land.  He is referring to the angle of the design which allows the sky to continually reflected down to the street.

Following the visit Cathy and I crossed Borough High St to the café in Southwark Cathedral where I was astounded how similar the oldest part of the walls were to the most recent parts of the Shard. I have so many images, sounds and ideas buzzing around in my head, can’t wait to begin.

Who says concrete ain’t sexy!


1 Response to “Blasted slag and Dr Feelgood at London Bridge”

  1. 1 Dan
    May 10, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    Great article and great pics.
    It reminded me of going into large factories and being drowned with the noise dust and heat of production in full swing – like Dantes Inferno!
    Especially British Steel and its equivalents in France and Belgium.
    Well done on getting in there.

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