We don’t need another Crystal Palace

Drawing of the Crystal Palace, a glass and iron building with a flag flying above it, with a group of people, some on horseback, in front of it, with a tree to the left.Last week I read that a Chinese businessman has presented plans to rebuild the old Crystal Palace on its old site at the top of Crystal Palace Park in south-east London. Ni Zhaoxing, chairman of ZhongRong Holdings, intends that the new building will house his art collection as well as a hotel, conference centre and “other commercial space”, according to the Daily Mail last Thursday, at a cost of £500m to him; the plan is supported by Bromley Council and the London mayor, Boris Johnson, and is said to include a redevelopment of the surrounding Crystal Palace Park. The original building burned down in 1936.

This plan has echoes of the rebuilding of the Globe theatre, which happened because Sam Wanamaker, an American film director, came to London in 1949 and expected to find the Globe there, when in fact it been demolished in 1644 during the Cromwell régime which disapproved of theatre. (There in fact was a Globe theatre in 1949, but it was an Edwardian building on Shaftesbury Avenue in the West End with nothing in common with the old Globe except the name; that is now the Gielgud Theatre.) So, he started a trust to research the appearance of the old building, to secure a site on the South Bank and to rebuild the theatre, which finally opened in 1997 (Wanamaker himself died in 1993). The Globe was of considerable cultural significance as the place where Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed, so its reconstruction was seen as educationally important as well.

The Crystal Palace has a far lesser cultural significance. I’ve heard the building referred to as “the Palace” on the news this past week, but it was not a palace but an exhibition hall. The original was built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the name came from a satirist, Douglas Jerrold AKA Mrs Amelia Mouser, who wrote in Punch of a “palace of very crystal” before the plans had been approved. After the exhibition finished, a consortium of eight businessmen, two of whom were board members of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (which operated the main line through south London), proposed to relocate the building to what was then Penge Place, a property excised from Penge Common in south London. According to its Wikipedia entry:

The constructing of the building began on Sydenham Hill in 1852. The new building, while incorporating most of the constructional parts of the Hyde Park building, was so completely different in form as to be properly considered a quite different structure – a ‘Beaux-arts’ form in glass and metal. The main gallery was redesigned and covered with a new barrel-vaulted roof, the central transept was greatly enlarged and made even higher, and two new transepts were added at either end of the main gallery. It was modified and enlarged so much that it extended beyond the boundary of Penge Place, which was also the boundary between Surrey and Kent. The reconstruction was recorded for posterity by Philip Henry Delamotte, and his photographs were widely disseminated in his published works.

Within two years, in 1854, Queen Victoria again performed an opening ceremony.

Various exhibitions were held in the rebuilt Crystal Palace, but it always had financial difficulties, not least because people would not travel to visit it on a Sunday, which was often their only day off work, but also because its maintenance was costly. However, various exhibitions were held, including the world’s first cat show in 1871 and a Festival of Empire in 1911, to mark the coronation of George V and Queen Mary. The building burned down in 1936 after an office fire spread along the building’s timber floors; the fire could be seen across eight counties and Winston Churchill came to view it. Crystal Palace Park remains, and is also the site of a major athletics stadium; the surrounding area is commonly called Crystal Palace, although the town to its west is in fact Upper Norwood. Probably the area is best associated with the Crystal Palace football club, whose ground is about a mile or two to the south-west, at Selhurst Park.

It is natural that Bromley council should support the scheme, because it’s a Tory council dominated by the semi-rural outer suburbia found in places like Chislehurst, Orpington, West Wickham and Bromley itself. Crystal Palace is on the north-eastern fringe of the borough and places like Penge and Anerley are among the few down-scale areas, and a regeneration of Crystal Palace would bring a certain degree of gentrification. The site of the old Crystal Palace is on the western side of the park, however, and neighbouring residential areas are in Southwark and Lewisham boroughs (Croydon and Lambeth also converge near the park), and it is they that would have to cope with the resulting traffic - and the traffic in the area, particularly on the Crystal Palace Parade, is already considerable. The main railway line to the hall was a branch of the south-eastern main line and terminated across the Parade, but this was closed in the 1950s as it was no longer used much after the Crystal Palace was destroyed and the low-level station is more convenient for the park and the stadium. Parts of the old line, including the site of the station, have had houses built on them. The scheme would, thus, generate tax revenue for Bromley council and would solidify Tory control, but generate very little benefit for the surrounding areas which are in other (mostly Labour-dominated) boroughs, except for a bit of extra revenue for shops and restaurants along Westow Hill. London does not, in any case, need more conference halls and as for the art collection, we really ought to see that before we allow this to be built to accommodate it.

I have a sense that the developer has little idea of what sort of area Crystal Palace is now. I’m sure I wasn’t the only Brit who heard Tori Amos sing “Mirror, mirror, where’s the crystal palace?” in the song Winter and laugh a bit; the phrase, next to a reference to a fairy tale about a queen, sounds very odd. While it may be true that the building gave its name to the local area and football club, having lived near there as a child I never heard any great clamour to have it rebuilt. The name, despite sounding glittery, is heavily associated with the football team (only just promoted to the Premier League with no guarantee of staying up) and the culture that goes with that, as well as a downmarket surrounding area with businesses that have suffered from too much traffic on the narrow roads (the hall itself was often a downmarket attraction when it was open); it could easily become a byword for something that glitters but is not gold. The surrounding area is too far from either the centre of London or the country to be particularly desirable and (at least by London standards) expensive. Many of us would rather keep it that way, because the last thing London needs now is yet more foreign investment in everything but industry that provides real work with prospects (why would a Chinese businessman do that?), pushing up the cost of housing for ordinary people.

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