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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.

A concept illustration of the new Crystal Palace, produced by the ZhongRong Group.
A concept illustration of the new Crystal Palace, produced by the ZhongRong Group.

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.