By Michael Baxter, editor of Investment and Business News
And so the tallest building in Europe was officially opened last week. Is that a reason to celebrate, or a reason to see arrogance?
The Shard does not merely stand, it shimmers too. Sometimes you can see its form appearing above the clouds, with its glass exterior almost camouflaged against London’s grey sky, it’s like a modern day Shangri La, mysterious and enticing; a metaphor for the glory of man.
Or is that a metaphor for hubris. Opened during the same week that Bob Diamond resigned from Barclays, it may serve as a reminder that when we try to walk in the footsteps of Gods, the wax holding our feathers together may melt, and we may fall to Earth, crashing like a giant ego ejected from the soaring deceit that was LIBOR manipulation.
If you are familiar with the story of grand buildings, right now your senses may be assaulted by a strong impression of déjà vu. When it was opened in 1908, the Singer building was the tallest in the world, but in New York citizens had other things on their minds, for this was the year of a bankers’ crisis, when stock markets crashed 50 per cent.
21 years later, work began on another building. The Empire State was finally opened in 1931 (it took just 15 months to complete, from start to finish). Was it a monument to our victory over nature, or a symbol of the madness of the times when its planning was begun, when the gap between the very rich and the rest grew, when greed permeated Wall Street, when stocks soared almost as high as the Empire State itself, before that is the crash of 1929, and the Great Depression?
Forward wind the clock to 1998, for in that year Kuala Lumpur saw the opening of the Petronas Twin Towers, at 1453 feet. Even today, they are the tallest twins in the world, back then they were the tallest and second tallest buildings in the world. No doubt the Malaysian government was delighted to celebrate the glory of their opening, but its focus was surely elsewhere, because the Asian crisis of 1997 had seen Malaysia transformed from tiger economy to a nation at the mercy of the IMF, on the verge of suffering economic depression.
And then in 2010, a new building was opened, and the record books were shattered. The Burj Khalifa may have stood at over 2000 feet, but perhaps it was a hollow victory for Dubai, as it too suffered from meltdown. It was an economy that had overreached itself, and was left begging its neighbours for help.
And that’s the story of hubris; as Icarus fell to earth, his father Daedalus looked on in horror, rueing the day he tried to soar above the heavens.
So does that mean we can conclude that the Shard is a warning, a sign that in our times we have let greed and reckless lead us into potential calamity? Does it show that bankers must be tamed, that their greed is bringing ruin on us all?
Actually, it does no such thing. The Shard was not a herald of pain, any more than the Singer Building, the Empire State, the Petronas Twin Towers, and Burj Khalifa towers signified problems would occur. Rather, just like those other monuments, it was a child of earlier times.
The plans for the Shard were begun during the days of boom, as were the plans for the Empire State.
We already knew that bankers had made fatal errors during the boom. LIBOR manipulation was rife in a different era, when bankers’ excess had gone wild. It may or may not still be present, but we can draw no lessons from the saga of Bob Diamond and the Shard about today, rather the lessons we learn merely tell us what we already know; that during the heady days of boom things got out of hand.
But this seems to be forgotten. Too many reports cite the Diamond affair as an example of bankers repeating their sins of the past, when, in fact, they were the same sins committed during the same time frame, but only just exposed.
Don’t lose sight of that.
PS. It turns out a Shangri La hotel really does form part of the Shard.
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