A concept illustration of the new Crystal Palace, produced by the ZhongRong Group.
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Boris Johnson’s plan to sell public land for a new Crystal Palace will be a terrible boondoggle

The idea of building a new Crystal Palace in south London appeals to the Victorian Toryism in Boris Johnson, but it would be another pointless, aesthetically-bankrupt legacy the capital will have to deal with.

Whether or not Boris Johnson runs for another term as London Mayor or whether he heads off to the shires to prepare his assault on Downing Street, he will have left a very peculiar built legacy in London. Where Ken Livingstone saw letting developers get their way as something of a Faustian pact, attempting to extract “planning gain” – public realm works, affordable housing, etc – in exchange for permission to build, Boris has no qualms about giving rich builders carte blanche, and is fond of a good old-fashioned vanity project.

First came the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the utterly pointless and aesthetically inept viewing platform for the Olympics, and then it was the Emirates Air Line, the similarly pointless cable-car river crossing. There is the New Bus For London, a bigger, heavier, more pointless bus than what Londoners had before, not to mention the ill-fated Barclay’s sponsorship of Cycle Hire. Johnson’s usual strategy is to find a mega-wealthy sponsor to contribute some – but not all – of the funds required to build his urban trinkets, in exchange for branding opportunities and no doubt various other negotiated preferences. And in Sydenham, south London, it looks as though Boris might be trying to build his grandest, most pointless project yet.

Johnson’s new billionaire friend this time is Ni Zhaoxing, head of the ZongRhong Group, a Chinese state-backed real estate company, and the prize he’s offering is a chance to rebuild the Crystal Palace, that magnificent symbol of Britain’s glorious industrial history. But that’s not quite what’s happening. What is actually going on at the moment is that six of the UK’s best architects are working on proposals to build a new building inside Crystal Palace Park on the site where the original building stood. This will be “in the spirit” of the Crystal Palace, and at the moment will apparently house a “cultural asset/visitor facility”, art galleries, observation deck and a six-star hotel.

It’s not hard to see the problems in this. Crystal Palace Park is “Metropolitan Open Land”, and it’s not clear that Boris had the legal right to offer it up to someone to build something there, let alone something with a footprint of nearly one million square feet – roughly equivalent to the O2 in Greenwich. It’s also not clear that there’s any demand for a building of that scale out in a suburb of south London, and even if there were, it’s not clear that the transport infrastructure could cope with the amount of people who would visit a building of that size. And beyond these issues, there’s basically no way that some kind of ill-defined “cultural programme” and a hotel could make a building of that size commercially viable. So it’s perfectly right that local residents and politicians are highly suspicious of the process, as it appears that Johnson (and Bromley Council) are trying to hand over public land to a private developer who simply haven’t made up their mind what they want yet, and will probably in the end build something that will make them a profit, such as, just possibly, a shopping mall.

The Crystal Palace is a fantastic brand for a conservative, a potent image of the Victorian glory days of 1851 when Britain was the most powerful country in the world and host of the very first world event, the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, to demonstrate this fact. The incredible pre-fabricated palace, designed by the gardener Joseph Paxton, has also cast a long shadow over architectural history as an archetype of functional design, and there is no doubt that this new project would be a dream commission for many on the architects long-list.

But there’s another history: the Crystal Palace was only an exhibition hall for six months, and in 1854 it was rebuilt as a permanent facility. In its new guise it held museums and galleries, winter gardens, art and engineering schools, and a number of concert halls (of which the largest could accommodate an audience of 23,000). Intended to provide an educational, uplifting space where the classes could mix, it struck a public chord, and for many writers it even became symbolic both of a social utopia where humans lived in harmony with nature, but also a rationalist dystopia where all mystery in the world had vanished forever. At various points it was a popular venue, but at that scale it verged on being financially useless and went bankrupt a number of times before being taken over by the government in 1911. One wing burned down in 1866, and by the point it was completely destroyed on the 30 November 1936 – described by Churchill as “the end of an age” – it was on the verge of ruination.

It’s worth noting that the period in which Britain was showing itself off at the Great Exhibition was the same period it was violently opening up China to foreign trade. So if Johnson wants to rebuild this shimmering symbol of Britishness, he may find that it has somewhat unwelcome historical resonances – decline, failure – to the ones he’s aiming for, and one wonders if he’s considered the potential ironies in this latest mighty work of his.

 

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Emmanuel Macron: a populist eruption from the liberal centre

The French presidential candidate has been compared with a young Tony Blair.

The French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron came to town this week to meet Theresa May and address the London French community, whose votes he was chasing. In our age of extremes, Macron, who is 39, is that rare thing – a populist eruption from the liberal centre. A former merchant banker and economy minister in the failing Hollande Socialiste administration, he represents En Marche! (“Forward!”), which is less a party than a movement. His sudden rise would not have been possible in Britain, which is part of the stability and attraction of the parliamentary system but also its frustration.

Don’t be shy

I met Macron on Tuesday afternoon when he took questions from a small group of journalists at Central Hall Westminster. He is small and dapper, with short hair and a strong, straight nose. Because of the collapse of the Socialistes and the struggles of the discredited conservative contender François Fillon, Macron has emerged as the great hope of liberals and perhaps as the candidate to stop Marine Le Pen seizing the presidency. Unlike the Front National leader, Macron is an unashamed liberal globaliser in the model of Nick Clegg or a younger, less tormented Tony Blair. He is a passionate advocate of the EU and of the eurozone and, as a result, is under attack from the Russian media. He has been accused of leading a double life – his wife, whom he met when she was his schoolteacher, is 20 years older than Macron – and of being unwilling to admit that he is gay, or at least bisexual. His response to the Russian attacks was, he said, “to disclose the manipulation and kill the rumours”.

The far right in France has caricatured Macron as being “globalisation personified”, about which he is relaxed. In conversation, he criticised David Cameron’s referendum campaign. “His message was ‘Yes but . . .’ That is not the answer to ‘No’. I defend Europe and the four freedoms of the EU. If you are shy, you are dead.”

Not all relative

On Sunday, I received a text from one of my cousins. “The Lincoln City manager and his brother, the assistant, are called Cowley,” he wrote. “His father looks a bit like your father. Any relation? They are from Essex.” I am also from Essex, born and brought up in Harlow new town, which turned 70 this year. But I had to disappoint my cousin. My father was an only child, as was his father, so it’s highly unlikely that these Cowley brothers are even distant relations of mine.

Toast of the county

I already knew about the brothers, having been alerted to them by my seven-year-old son, who is a sports data enthusiast. Last season, Danny Cowley and his younger brother, Nicky, were working as teachers in Essex while coaching Braintree Town at weekends. This season, they have led Lincoln to an FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal, making them the first non-League team to reach the last eight in more than a century. Lincoln are also at the top of the National League (English football’s semi-professional fifth division) and in the quarter-final of the FA Trophy, the premier non-League cup competition. The Cowleys are reported to be subsisting on a diet of toast and Marmite as they rise early each morning obsessively to study videos and analytics and prepare for the next match. They have introduced a new spirit of openness at the previously moribund club: fans watch training sessions and attend press conferences.

It’s nonsense to believe, as some do, that only those who have performed at the highest level have the authority to coach the best. Wenger, Mourinho, Sven-Göran Eriksson, Roy Hodgson, André Villas-Boas: none of them were even remotely successful players. Asked once to explain his accomplishments, Mourinho said: “I’ve had more time to study.” More English coaches – so few of whom are working in the Premier League – would do well to follow his example.

It will be fascinating to see how far the Cowley brothers progress in the game. Whatever happens next, they have reanimated interest in the FA Cup and given the resilient yeomen of Essex a small boost.

Ignore the huckster

Boris Johnson accused Tony Blair of “bare-faced effrontery” for having the temerity last week to deliver an anti-Brexit speech, which itself was an act of bare-faced effrontery. Johnson is a huckster and narcissist whose vanities have been grotesquely indulged for far too long by his cheerleaders and paymasters in the media. (A standard question to Johnson when he was mayor of London: “You do want to be prime minister, don’t you?”) No one should take anything Johnson says remotely seriously. Should the same be said of Blair?

Yes, of course he is the author of his own misfortunes and many will never forgive the former Labour prime minister for the Iraq catastrophe. Yet of all the politicians I have spoken to in recent times, Blair was the most intellectually nimble and the most alert to the defining complexities of the present moment. As he demonstrated in his speech, he also understands better than most why, in an age of intensifying ethnic nationalism, the parties of the left are failing across Europe, none more so than the British Labour Party, which looks as far away from power as it did after the 1931 election.

Journey to the centre

As an energetic and charismatic liberal, Macron has been likened to the young Tony Blair. Can he seize the progressive centre, as Blair did, and destabilise the old binary divisions of left and right? “The anti-European and anti-globalisation extremes are winning elections,” he said, in a veiled reference to Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit. “But we don’t have the same political cycles as the others. It’s time for France to do the opposite.” With that said, he thanked his interlocutors and was hurried off for a meeting with another Essex man, Philip Hammond, pursued not by a bear but by the journalist Robert Peston. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit