Tag Archives: Architecture

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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Dickens’s buildings and the partial perspective

What do we imagine when we think of Dickens, and why?

This was the question with which Lynda Nead began her keynote at Dickens and the Visual Imagination this week, and one which I kept coming back to over the last few days, with a couple of instances prompting further reflection on Nead’s talk.

The first instance was watching David Lean’s Great Expectations, having realised this week that I’ve never seen the film in full; crucially though, I felt as though I had because its key images are so familiar – as Nead said, it’s so much a part of our visual imagination of Dickens. On reaching the scene in which Pip arrives in London for the first time, I was reminded of an instance a few years ago when my memory of the text had become confused by memory of the film, which previously I’d seen fragments of in undergraduate lectures. At the time, I was writing a section of my PhD thesis on arrivals into London, and dug out Great Expectations intending to write about Pip’s entrance into London and the foreboding vision of the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral that looms over his arrival. Upon re-reading the book, I was surprised to find that the episode is only a slight, brief mention in which Pip recounts “I saw the great black dome of St Paul’s bulging at me from behind a grim stone building which a bystander said was Newgate Prison” (chapter 20); a mere handful of words for what had become, for me, a strikingly visual image.

Pip

Image of Pip’s arrival in London in Lean’s Great Expectations

I was convinced that the episode was textually described in far more vivid and lengthy detail; it wasn’t the text, but the image from Lean’s film that I had in mind. The image had mingled into my memory of the text to create a new, composite image existing, for me, somewhere between text and film. Nead spoke this week about how the visual imagination isn’t so much a process of “geological layering” but rather one of creative transformation which explodes the boundaries of both text and image and creates new imaginative forms in its wake; it’s a description that seemed more than fitting for my memory of Great Expectations.

In watching Great Expectations this week I was particularly attentive to a further point of Nead’s talk, in which she noted that we never see a complete vision of the exterior of Miss Havisham’s house, only partial fragments – the clock tower, the gate, the steps. We might think that we have a complete vision of the house, but in fact this is largely constructed through the house’s interior; so powerful are the images of Miss Havisham’s rooms that they work to build a vision of the house from the inside out.

Great Expectations

The interior of Miss Havisham’s house

This resonated strongly with the theme of Andrew Sanders’s talk on Dickens’s rooms, in which it was notable that so many of the illustrations from the novels depict interiors; rarely (at least, from what I can think), do we see exteriors of the houses. And today, as I was reading Julian Wolfreys’ Writing London, these ideas came to mind again. Discussing a passage from Our Mutual Friend, he notes the resistance to the whole, complete vision in Dickens’s architectural description: ‘the entire architectural meaning is brought into question, deconstructed as it is into a series of ambiguously architectural details… The eye is moved from piece to piece, but the gaze is ultimately refused an overall meaning, a monumental, organized presence on which it can fix’ (p. 150)

How often does Dickens give us a description of the exterior of a house? When are we given the complete perspective of the whole, or is Nead’s idea of Lean’s construction of Satis House from “inside-out” true also of the written descriptions in Dickens’s novels? How often are buildings constructed only from within or with a view to partiality?

And, to reorient Nead’s question, what do we imagine when we think of Dickens’s houses, and why? That is to say, what role does film play in the visual imagination of Dickens’s buildings? Where do film/tv adaptations give us the complete exterior perspective that the text denies, and how does this play into our visual idea of Dickens’s houses and other architectural forms?

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David Lean, Great Expectations (1946)

Julian Wolfreys, Writing London: The Trace of the Urban Text from Blake to Dickens (Palgrave, 1998)

Dickens and the Visual Imagination @ University of Surrey 9th–10th July 2012 (day 1)

This two-day conference at the University of Surrey and the Paul Mellon Centre in London gave a fascinating array of responses to the idea of Dickens and the visual imagination, from Dickens’s engagement with visual material, the interplay between text and image in his writing, and the lasting influence of Dickens in visual culture.

The conference began with Andrew Sanders’s keynote on “Dickens’s Rooms”. Sanders covered a myriad of rooms – prison cells, grand rooms, poor rooms, ship berths, empty rooms, and many more – often drawing on both written description and accompanying illustrations, the latter often playing against or revealing more about the text, particulary in the inclusion of objects, portraits, and the interplay of light and shadow within rooms. Sanders’s discussion focused particularly on class and characterisation, offering some suggestive insights about the wider textual resonances of small details of rooms.

David Copperfield

Illustration “I am hospitably received by Mr Peggotty” from David Copperfield

The first panel I attended took London as its theme. Christine Corton presented on “London Fog: from the Verbal to the Visual”, exploring the particular visual resonances of the fog metaphors that Dickens frequently employs in his writing on London – such as the variety of different colours that the fog takes (the “pea-souper” of Bleak House, for example). This gave a greater complexity to the use of fog as a metaphor for ambivalence, and revealed the changing nature of fog throughout Dickens’s writings. The murkiness of London was also present in Ursula Kluwick’s paper on “The Dickensian Thames in Word and Image” which looked at the interplay between visual and verbal representations of the River Thames in Dickens’s writing. The river frequently features as dirty and unhygenic, echoing contemporary concern over the condition of the river by those calling for sanitary reform; it is also used as a metaphor for the moral corruption of London, although takes on a contradictory, more pleasant appearance in rural scenes. However, Kluwick noted that in accompanying illustrations the river is often less prominent, obscuring these issues to suggest ambivalence at facing up to the state of London.

Old Curiosity Shop

Illustration of Quilp’s death from The Old Curiosity Shop

A final paper in this panel by Estelle Murail took us above the city to look at the influence of sketches and panoramas on Dickens’s cityscapes. Sketches and panoramas are different forms of urban representation, the former a detailed close-up of particular sites whilst the latter provides a sweeping vision of the city recreated in an all-encompassing visual experience. A panorama by Rudolph Ackermann challenges this, as Ackermann incorporated detailed sketches into his construction of the panorama, and Murail used this as a basis to explore how Dickens’s writing also challenges the distinction between the two modes of viewing the city, moving between panoramic perspective and the detail of a sketch. Murail finished with some indicative ideas about the function of technologies of vision in the new landscape of modernity, drawing on Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s ideas about the urban panorama teaching a particular mode of vision that served as preparatory for the panoramic perspectives of the railway journey.

The next panel focused on architecture and interiors, starting with a paper by Emma Gray on Victorian domestic interiors in Dickens’s writing. Emma spoke last year at my conference on Rural Geographies of Gender and Space 1840-1920, and it was interesting to hear her discussion of country houses such as Tyntesfield and Hughenden Manor in the context of Dickens’s writing. Gray suggested that Dickens’s depictions of domestic interiors often resonate with the work of distinguished decorators JG Crace & Son, and she analysed scenes such as the redecoration of Dombey’s house in Dombey and Son and the handling of the Veneerings in Our Mutual Friend through contemporary fashions in home decoration. Clare Pettitt considered Dickens’s response to visual material during his time in Italy in the mid-1840s, suggesting that his viewing of Baroque art and architecture effected a profound stylistic change in his work of the period, opening up a new understanding of historical time and mode through which to understand the present through reference to the past. Dominic James finished the panel with a paper that considered the depiction of gothic art and architecture in The Old Curiosity Shop, in which the contemporary ambivalence to the gothic revival is revealed in complex and contradictory ways.

A second keynote by Sambudha Sen concluded the day. In a paper titled “City Sketches, Panoramas and the Dickensian Aesthetic”, Sen explored how Dickens constructed an urban aesthetic heavily influenced by visal technologies such as sketches and panoramas. Discussion focused on Bleak House which Sen argued demonstrates an impulse to grasp visual modes of representing London, constructing a spatial aesthetic that contrast with Thackeray’s Vanity Fair in which time provides depth and organisation to social experience. This provided a rich and detailed reading with which to finish the first day of the conference, and I’ll be thinking more on Sen’s reading as I come to revise work on Bleak House this week.

The first day also provided two opportunities to enjoy visual material associated with Dickens. At the University of Surrey we viewed “Dickens Illustrated“, an exhibition of illustrations from and inspired by Dickens’s works – a nice opportunity to see a huge range of editions of Dickens’s works, from the earliest editions illustrated by Phiz to more recent childrens’ books and comics inspired by his writing. After the conference, we headed to a reception at the Watts Gallery in Compton, where an exhibition on Dickens and the Artists is currently on display, exploring the influence of Dickens on artists of the 19th century such as the image of the conference, Buss’s “Dickens’s Dream”. This was an excellent end to the day, and apt preparation for the art history focus of day 2, on which more in my next post.

“The Watts Gallery is a place where the past meets the future,

where myth joins reality,

where the principle of beauty embraces the facts of truth”

(Andrew Motion)