It’s a couple of months now since the first press release announcing plans to rebuild the Crystal Palace. My initial response was amazement that it may be possible in coming years to see the rebuilding of one of the most important buildings of the nineteenth century; but as further details unfurl I, like many others, am increasingly ambivalent about the project, which would see a £500 million investment by a private Chinese corporation into the building and surrounding parkland. While the regeneration of the park seems long-overdue and supported by the local community, the corporation currently have an exclusivity agreement with the local council that prevents other proposals for the site’s development to be submitted until February 2015; during this time there is a call for the community to express their feedback on the scheme but it seems this has come rather late in discussions and from what I’ve read of the news articles, local people are unconvinced that this is the right sort of investment for the park. I’m not familiar with the area to comment further on the local impact of the project, but have been wondering from a Victorianist’s perspective what would be the value in rebuilding the Crystal Palace at Sydenham.
It’s easy to say that the Crystal Palace was one of the most iconic building of the Victorian age, but its history is much more complicated and complex than that: its a story of two phases, and the symbolic meaning of the building changed over the years. In its first incarnation, the Crystal Palace was built in Hyde Park in 1851 to house the Great Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations: the first international Exhibition of its kind, showcasing over 100,000 objects from all over the world. The Exhibition organising committee ran a public call for proposals for the design of the building, and after many unsuccessful suggestions it was Joseph Paxton’s design that caught the imagination of the organisers. Paxton had long been designing specialist greenhouses made from glass and iron for the large collection of exotic plants at the Chatsworth estate (including the famous giant Victoria Regia water lily). His design for the Exhibition space replicated the basic principles of these glasshouses, but at 562m long, 124m wide, and with an interior height of 39m, the building was by far the largest structure of its kind, and required sheets of glass bigger than any produced before. It was a piece in Punch that saw the building christened “the Crystal Palace”, a name that captured the semi-mythical, iconic status of the new building.
The Crystal Palace inspired mixed responses, ranging from hyperbolic praise at the wonder of its design, to ridicule that it was simply a very large greenhouse. So too was it site of contestation: as one Household Words article points out, not so far away from the great building lay “our over-crowded burial grounds, generating a poisonous atmosphere in the thick of the living and loathing people! There, runs the polluted Thames, of which we are compelled to drink!” (Richard Horne, 22/03/1851). Once filled with the exhibits, the wonder of its design was that although the structure was such a spectacle in and of itself, it receded into the background as a translucent space in which the objects on display could take centre-stage – as the colourful “Watercolours of the Great Exhibition” nicely demonstrate.
But it is arguably in the second phase of the Palace’s life that the strongest ideological meanings became invested in the building itself; the wealth of objects on display at the Exhibition overwhelmed visitors and ultimately preside most strongly in accounts of the Exhibition), but devoid of these things the Crystal Palace was both more open to interpretation, and open to retrospective investment as a symbol of a past era. After the closure of the Exhibition in October 1851, it was decided that the Palace should be rebuilt at Sydenham and, from its construction in 1854, it remained there until 1936. But while retaining the original features of Paxton’s design, this was an altogether different building: shorter in length, but with a much greater footprint (nearly 100 acres more) and rising to six stories (from the initial three), resulting in a much larger capacity than its first incarnation. Just from looking at pictures, it is clearly a much more commanding, overpowering presence as a structure, and I think this is crucial to the way in which the Palace (and, by association, the Great Exhibition) retrospectively became symbolic of a golden age of British imperial superiority to a much greater extent than in its original incarnation at the time of the Exhibition. The new Palace was put to a range of uses as a leisure space, hosting many concerts, events, exhibitions, and surrounded by 200 acres of park land used for recreation and sport. In 1936, the building was destroyed by a fire but the park has remained, and over the years there have been many suggestions for rebuilding or otherwise restoring the site of the Palace.
So what would be gained by rebuilding the Crystal Palace today? I suppose my initial fascination with the idea stems from an inability to quite grasp the scale and size of the building (both the original, and the redesigned version), and particularly the effect of being inside such a large glass structure. To be able to see and experience that wouldn’t be able to recapture the Victorian experience of the building in any real way, but it would provide an interesting exercise in accompanying the interpretation of accounts from the period. Perhaps more indicatively, it would represent a very interesting contribution to a contemporary neo-Victorian landscape which is marked by a fascination with the buildings and places of the past as sites of meaning, and I’m intrigued as to how a rebuilt Palace would play into both public perceptions and contemporary critical responses on these themes.
Because if there’s one thing that’s noticeable about the design (see the brochure download), it’s that the proposed building is evocative of a neo-Victorian aesthetic that befits the contemporary landscape, rather than standing as a monument to the past. While in images of Paxton’s design the iron bars of the structure are heavily visible, the design foregrounding the contrast between glass and iron, light and dark, weight and weightlessness, in the new design this is gone or at least downplayed in the overall visual effect: transparency, light, airiness are the themes of this structure, emphatically a reinterpretation rather than a straightforward homage to the Victorians. At the same time, heritage looms large over the project: ”The park will be restored in line with the approved masterplan to create a modern 21st century park of national importance which reflects Joseph Paxton’s original ideas and responds to the needs and aspirations of local residents” (p. 5). It’s a rather empty statement however, with no explanation of what is understood by “Paxton’s original ideas”, and the talk of “originality” is further interesting given the Palace’s two design formulations – the new building uses the second design, not the true original from Hyde Park.
This reinterpretation is also interesting in that it demonstrates the global afterlives of Victorian Britian’s national heritage. The plans have come from the Chinese ZhongRong Group, and in the opening statement Mr Ni states that “the former Crystal Palace is celebrated in China as a building of great achievement. Its ingenuity and scale is magnificent and this project is a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring it back to life [...] I have admired the Crystal Palace for many years and am passionate about this project. The Palace’s story is fascinating and I am hoping to add the next chapter by providing a gift to London and the world” (p. 3). It’s a telling statement about the ongoing resonances of the Victorian period and the dis- or re-location of national culture into international contexts, and to see that re-located back into Britain would bring interesting opportunities to analyse these currents further.
As the project gets underway it will be interesting to see how these themes develop; I’m not, from what I’ve heard so far, in favour of the project and hope that the local concerns around it are taken seriously. Insofar as the potential for discussion around the Victorians and their neo-Victorian afterlives goes, though, the project raises some indicative questions and I’d be intrigued to hear more about what other Victorianists make of the proposals as they unfold.
The next seminar of the Travel and Mobility Studies research network at Warwick:
Thursday 5th December 2013, 5.15 – 6.15 in the Wolfson Reseach Exchange
‘Finitude before finitude: the case of Rousseau-Bougainville-Diderot’
Benoît Dillet (Centre for Critical Thought, University of Kent)
Tahiti is synonymous with a long history of exoticism in French thought. Soon after the publication of Bougainville’s travel accounts, it quickly became rightly or wrongly the epitome of Rousseau’s state of nature, and also led to the development of anthropology before anthropology. In this paper, I attempt to reconstruct the discussion between Rousseau, Bougainville and Diderot about exoticism and otherness, and examine the consequences of the ‘discovery’ of Tahiti for French thought at the time.
Benoît Dillet holds a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Kent, Canterbury (UK), he is the co-editor of Technologiques: La Pharmacie de Bernard Stiegler (Cécile Defaut, 2013) and The Edinburgh Companion to Poststructuralism (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming 2013).
This was my third Dickens Day and the first where I wasn’t presenting a paper, so it was good to sit back and enjoy what is always a stimulating day among the Dickens community. This year’s theme of Dickens and History elicited some interesting responses on a good range of Dickens’s novels, including some that tend to receive less attention – Michael Slater’s plenary paper on A Child’s History of England was one example of this, opening the day with illuminating discussion of how Dickens handles historical themes and subjects in this work. Ruth Livesey followed with a very interesting reading of place and the past in Martin Chuzzlewit, exploring how different spaces and sites are employed in the novel’s central handling of the pull between past and present.
Papers in the panel sessions opened up various lines of enquiry into how Dickens understood history and how we situate Dickens as historical figure today. Emily Bowles explored Dickens’s handling of personal history in the later journalism which demonstrates a complex and often peculiar narrative voice that can’t easily be categorised, her reading drawing out indicative perspectives on the pursuit of self-knowledge and Dickens’s sense of his own history in these writings. Hadas Elber-Aviram’s paper on the “alternative histories” of Little Dorrit and David Copperfield looked at how the narratives pose a series of undeveloped relationships that present an on-going sense of “what might have been” that becomes central to the idea of history and the present in these novels. The making of “Dickens and history” in the contemporary moment was the subject of Claire Wood’s paper about the archiving of Dickens 2012 activities; I was especially interested in how 2012 was positioned in relation to previous Dickens celebrations, which Claire defined as moving from “reverential” in 1912, “faithful recreation” in 1970, to “rediscovery” in 2012. It will certainly be indicative to see how the bicentenary continues to be discussed as it becomes part of recent history (I’m aware already from writing about it of the potential impulse to mythologise or over-emphasise certain aspects of that year), and the papers here on Dickens and History provided some thoughtful issues to consider in both the crafting and interpreting of histories of Dickens.
I spent Friday 11th October in Stratford-upon-Avon at the launch of Shakespeare on the Road, a project between the University of Warwick, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and Misfits, inc. to celebrate the 2014-16 anniversaries of Shakespeare’s birth and death. In what sounds like a rather wonderful (and enviable!) summer, the team are travelling across the United States visiting around 17 Shakespeare Festivals to provide an account of the as-yet-undocumented ways in which Shakespeare is performed, experienced and interpreted in US Festival settings.
This symposium marked the launch of the project and was an opportunity to discuss some of the initial questions proposed by and arising from the project. Throughout the day we heard a fascinating range of papers about different aspects of Shakespeare and/in the USA: Nicola Watson spoke about Shakespeare Gardens in the US as sites of memorial and commemoration that cultivate a particularly “English”, and feminised, space; Andrew Dickson talked about Shakespeare’s presence in the history of the American West – place-names, accounts of reading on the road – a theme picked up on later in Tim Lockley‘s paper on the appropriation of Shakespeare in the colonial period as a legacy of “Englishness”.
There’s also the long history of American interest in the Birthplace, including the (perhaps mythical) story of the American showman P.T. Barnum who, so it is said, tried to purchase the Birthplace in 1847 with the intention of shipping it to the USA where it would become part of his travelling circus (more on that here) – a point I picked up on at the end of my paper on the interconnections between literature, nation and place to pose the question: what if Barnum had been successful and transported the Birthplace away from Stratford-upon-Avon - so that it became, in the words of Dickens’s Wemmick, ‘portable property’? What might this lead us to ask about the location of national culture – is it in the walls of the house, the ground on which it stands, the national audience that experiences it, all of those things together; can national culture be detached from national place and still have meaning, and what alternative perspectives might new national contexts have generated?
Ideas of place were central to Stuart Elden’s paper on Shakespeare’s territories which, following on from his new book The Birth of Territory, began to explore the ways in which territory is used and understood in Shakespeare’s plays. Steve Purcell also raised questions about the appropriation of space in festival contexts, where the carnivalisation of outdoor spaces often plays a central role in crafting ideas and expectations around Shakespeare Festivals and Ruth Leary spoke about festivals from a cultural policy perspective, and posed interesting ideas about the idea of creative economy and cultural entrepreneurship today and in Shakespeare’s own activity.
I was pleased to have the opportunity to participate in such an enjoyable day generating some stimulating research questions, and it’ll be fascinating to see how the project develops over the next couple of years.
It was reported on BBC news this morning that the National Trust have temporarily taken over operation of the Big Brother house, and for 2 days only will be running public guided tours of the house that, for 13 years, has been home to rounds of contestants of the reality TV show.
Inevitably, this has prompted many negative reactions: how could the National Trust, guardians of Britain’s most valuable heritage sites, descend to this? Is the house of a reality TV show of inherent value or meaning worthy of the National Trust stamp of approval? Isn’t it just a shallow PR stunt designed to market the National Trust as trendy and appealing to a younger audience? Well yes, there is clearly a PR exercise at work here, but it’s one that I have little objection to, either as publicity stunt – for that in itself gets people talking about heritage and value systems, which can be no bad thing – or for the grounds on which it markets the house as being of touristic value.
Of course the issue at stake here isn’t the opening up of what is, essentially, a TV set but the fact that the National Trust is behind it. The National Trust’s website states that its core aim is to “protect historic houses, gardens, mills, coastline, forests, woods, fens, beaches, farmland, moorland, islands, archaeological remains, nature reserves, villages and pubs. Then we open them up for ever, for everyone.”
Houses, of course, reach right to the heart of the idea of English identity. From the 18th century to the present day, the country house has been situated as a key national institution and one of the central images associated with ”Englishness”: evoking the power of the landed classes through an image of leisured grandeur set within carefully sculpted landscapes, whilst carefully eliding the labour and Empire required to produce and sustain that wealth, the country house neatly symbolises much of England’s history. The country house tourism that we participate in today is no new phenomenon either: the practice of visiting houses began in the late 18th century as one of the first modes of intra-national tourism and, as it grew throughout the 19th century, formed one of the key practices that helped solidify and, literally, locate an emergent sense of national identity. The continued popularity of country house tourism attests to the strength of discourses forged through this practice, the country house remaining a resonant location of cultural value, worthy of its heritage status and the national investment to protect it.
So it’s easy to see why the inclusion of the Big Brother house into this genre might cause some debate. The TV series marked the start of a reality turn in popular culture that is, by definition, both mundane and insidious in its attention to the details of the everyday lives on display. To many, it symbolises much of what is wrong with contemporary popular culture. Such a house also begs the obvious question about the appeal of visiting a house that has been displayed in such minute detail by cameras permeating every space; what is there left to see?
If houses represent the location of national culture, then the Big Brother house is arguably the most resonant site of British culture in the last ten years. When Big Brother first appeared on our TV screens 13 years ago it seemed to signal not just a new era of reality TV, but of privacy and intrusion too: “Big Brother is watching you” hit a cultural nerve, coinciding with, and perhaps at that time pre-empting, debates around an increasing surveillance culture (indeed, “Big Brother culture”) that have become particularly resonant over the last few years. While it was the TV series’ presentation of “reality” that initiated many of these debates, it is the material house itself that stands as the manifestation of these concepts, its physical structure permeated by modes of surveillance and spaces in which self-narratives – the lifeblood of reality TV – are encouraged to emerge (the “diary room”, for example). As the phase “Big Brother is watching you” also reminds us, it’s a space that invokes British cultural tradition; while the show’s derivation from 1984 remains tangential in its final formation and the idea of “Big Brother culture” was widely resonant before the TV show, it is arguably the TV series that has served to re-invoke Orwellian concepts as widely identifiable and understandable to new audiences, reinstating the text as an active part of contemporary cultural memory.
It’s worth remembering, too, that we can’t be too precious about the perceived cultural value of country house tourism. Much of the contemporary interest in national house visiting has been invigorated by TV reinterpretations of the nineteenth century that take the country house as a central symbol: from the Austen adaptations of the 1980s and ’90s to Downton Abbey in more recent years, the house has been central in the visual evocation of nineteenth-century England, and this in turn has helped foster the continued interest in National Trust and English Heritage sites. The popularity of heritage houses is as much a collision of different cultural forms and inscriptions of cultural meaning, a meeting-point of popular and traditional, literary and TV culture. So too does the Big Brother house remind us that these sites also market themselves via the commodification of visitor experience: if the Big Brother house makes quite explicit the question of “what would one gain from being in, experiencing the house for oneself?”, this question might just as easily be put to the viewing of country houses, where the idea of being a participant in history is key to the marketable appeal.
I won’t lie, reality TV isn’t my thing and I wasn’t queuing up to get tickets to the Big Brother house. But I am pleased that the National Trust have done this, for if nothing else it serves as a useful site of cultural debate for thinking about the meaning of heritage, national identity and cultural value, and reassessing the sites that remain meaningful locations of heritage today.