No view from the Shard ?
You were supposed to have read this already, but the launch of The View from the Shard, the highest viewing platform in western Europe, was postponed because there was, rather awkwardly, no view from the Shard.
Thick cloud enveloped Renzo Piano's £2bn glass skyscraper by London Bridge on Thursday and you couldn't even see the Gherkin just over the Thames, never mind the promised 40-mile views to the South Downs and Thames estuary. It was bad timing indeed for the owners, who are hoping to claw back some of their investment in London's newest landmark by charging £24.95 a person for a top deck view from the 72nd floor when it opens in February.
It was as if the British weather was having its say on a tower that critics have complained would be more at home among the architectural bling of the sun-drenched Arabian Gulf, home to the Qatari royal family which bankrolled its construction.
"Rise above it all" is the slogan chosen for the viewing experience and its owners did just that when it was finally opened for preview.
"There's only four or five days a year when there is zero visibility," said Anders Nyberg, the chief executive of the viewing platform, whose last job was overseeing a similar attraction at the top of the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, where sandstorms are more likely to be a problem than fog. Free tickets, he assured us, would be issued to anyone unlucky enough to book on a very bad day.
What they will see, 244 metres above London's chaotic streetscape, is spectacular. A high-speed lift whisks visitors noiselessly from the grimy bustle of the area around London Bridge station into the three-floor glazed viewing area at the jagged apex of the Shard.
Unlike the Empire State Building in New York, which offers a clear letterbox view across Manhattan, here London is reconfigured through the facets of Piano's shrapnel-like glazing. Even on a murky windswept day, the city of eight million people is laid out with fascinating and unprecedented legibility.
The Olympic stadium appears through one fragment, much closer to central London than you think. Through another, the weather comes in and goes out over the Thames estuary. The Houses of Parliament and the London Eye, the Shard's great rival in the altitude tourism market and cheaper at £17 for a standard ticket, are framed together.
Look down and the trains roll out of London Bridge station like millipedes. Look up and the London air ambulance skims through the air and a jet descends, barely higher than the floor on which you are standing, towards City airport.
"You can see the layers of London's history from up here," said William Matthews, the project architect for the tower. "You have the Tower of London over there, next to it the kitsch Tower Bridge, over there Canary Wharf. This project is just another layer, the 21st-century layer."
It is undeniably unique and at the launch Irvine Sellar, the Shard's shrewd 73-year-old developer who started his career selling clothes on Carnaby Street, worked the floor plugging the attraction like a latter-day PT Barnum.
"You can see a 40-mile radius at 360 degrees," he said. "You are looking on top of London. You can see the South Downs, the Thames estuary. It is very special."
The viewing floors will open from 9am to 10pm from February 2013 when the first paying customers will arrive, and Sellar is hoping to attract more than a million visitors a year. Tens of thousands of tickets have already been sold, with a particular rush for Valentine's Day as people plan high altitude proposals.
Tickets will be for entrance in a half-hour window and visitors can stay as long as they like. There is the inevitable souvenir shop selling model Shards.
"Weekends and bank holidays we will sell out well in advance," said Nyberg, adding that around 250 people will be allowed up at a time.
Before the view is revealed, visitors will be taken through exhibits intended to capture "the diverse tapestry of London".
Comic montages will show Margaret Thatcher and Karl Marx riding a tandem bicycle and Emmeline Pankhurst pointing the way for the Spice Girls, and there is a sly dig at Prince Charles's antipathy to modern architecture. A caricature of the heir to the throne is shown judging a sandcastle competition whose entrants, shown wearing just bathing costumes, include Piano, his close friend and fellow modernist Richard Rogers – with whom Charles has repeatedly clashed – and Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of St Paul's.
The price makes it one of the most expensive views in the world. A trip up the Burj Khalifa starts at £16, although it is £67 for immediate admission. The main deck of the Empire State Building starts at £15, while the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur charge £16.
"I think it is in line with other attractions for the level of offer we are giving," said Kevin Murphy, who designed the exhibition.
As the rain lashes the angled glass, occluding views of the medieval warren of the City, it is hard not to conclude that this will become a definitive London experience. And no matter how bad the weather, visitors will always be able to see the capital in its best light. A dozen computerised telescopes will allow visitors to flick a switch and see previously captured images of the rain-swept streets bathed in all too rare sunshine.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010