LONDON: Europe's tallest skyscraper the Shard will be inaugurated in London with a spectacular laser show on Thursday, as critics debate whether it is an architectural triumph or a blot on the skyline.
The dramatic glass and steel structure, which stands 310 metres tall, will be launched by Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, whose country has funded it, and Queen Elizabeth II's son Prince Andrew at 1400 GMT.
When night falls, a laser show will be projected from the building, connecting it up to other major London landmarks, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra providing the soundtrack.
The inauguration marks the completion of the exterior of the building, located on the south bank of the River Thames at London Bridge, while work on the inside is expected to continue into 2013.
The Shard, whose name was coined by its Italian architect Renzo Piano, is still significantly shorter than Dubai's 828-metre Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.
It takes over from Capital City Moscow Tower as the highest in Europe.
With capacity for 12,000 people, the 95-floor building will contain a five-star hotel, 600,000 square metres of office space, luxury restaurants and shops.
The jagged-tipped skyscraper will also house 10 apartments, reportedly costing up to 50 million pounds ($78 million, 62 million euros) each, which on floors 53 to 65 will be the highest residential properties in Britain.
Developer Sellar Property hopes the Shard's viewing decks, offering 360-degree panoramas, will become a major tourist attraction.
"It will become as essential a part of a visit to London as going to the top of the Empire State Building is for visitors to New York," said Irvine Sellar, the company's chairman.
The building will open as a tourist attraction in February and more than 17,500 people have already registered interest online. Advance tickets are available from Friday.
The 450 million pounds ($705.4 million, 560.70 million euro) project was 95 percent funded by Qatar.
The tiny, oil-rich Gulf state has a growing London property portfolio that also includes the famous Harrods department store and the Olympic Village.
Ken Livingstone, who was mayor of London when the project started 12 years ago, said the Shard was a beautiful building that would "define London."
"It brought 10,000 jobs to one of the most run-down and deprived areas of London," he told BBC radio on Thursday.
"Unlike a lot of the other tall buildings, Londoners will have access to this one."
But the building's futuristic silhouette has angered traditionalists who say it has dwarfed older landmarks such as St Paul's Cathedral and the Houses of Parliament.
English Heritage, the body responsible for protecting historic sites, says the skyscraper taints a view of St Paul's, while UNESCO has said it compromises the "visual integrity" of the Tower of London, one of its World Heritage sites.
One commentator even compared the Shard's impact on the London skyline to the recent destruction of ancient tombs and mosques in the fabled city of Timbuktu in Mali.
"Timbuktu's shrines can and surely will be rebuilt," Simon Hughes wrote in the Guardian on Wednesday. "The Shard has slashed the face of London for ever."
But Piano, who also designed the Pompidou Centre in Paris, has defended the building against claims that it is an overbearing presence on the skyline.
"This building is not arrogant," he told AFP during a tour of the construction site in February.
"When you're making a building like this, that's so important for the city, you have to be absolutely sure that it's the right thing to do... as an architect, if you make a mistake it stays there for a long time."
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