A new Crystal Palace?

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.

Aeronautic view of The Palace of Industry For All Nations, from Kensington Palace by Charles Burton, England, 1851 - 1852 (courtesy of V&A Museum)
Aeronautic view of The Palace of Industry For All Nations, from Kensington Palace by Charles Burton, England, 1851 – 1852 (courtesy of V&A Museum)

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 Dispersion of the Works of all Nations" by George Cruikshank, 1851
“The Dispersion of the Works of all Nations” by George Cruikshank, 1851

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.

'View in the West Nave' by Henry Clarke Pidgeon, 1851 (V&A Museum)
‘View in the West Nave’ by Henry Clarke Pidgeon, 1851
Crystal Palace Sydenham - photograph by Philip Henry Delamotte
Crystal Palace Sydenham – photograph by Philip Henry Delamotte

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.

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