I read today that the Crystal Palace may be set to rise again! It appears that there are plans to re-build the famous structure designed by Joseph Paxton as the centrepiece for the Great Exhibition of 1851, and subsequently re-located to Upper Sydenham in South London in 1854. The Chinese billionaire Ni Zhaoxing, founder of the Shanghai-based firm Zhong Rong Holdings has appointed the structural engineers Arup to develop a proposal for the scheme.
The site of the Crystal Palace is less than a mile from my home. The area is now easily identifiable from miles around by the presence of a large television and radio transmitter mast, positioned almost exactly where the Palace once stood. This is always a useful guide when driving home, and also the butt of a standing joke with my American cousins, who like to be told that England is so small that they can see the Eiffel Tower from West Dulwich.
Like most busy people, you often never really explore what is closest at hand. I have been to many firework displays and some athletic events in the park but in hearing this story of a new beginning for the Palace, I decided to go and have a look at the site. Just returned, I feel like I’ve been on a tour around some ancient Roman ruin, or to the remains of some sad forlorn and abandoned country estate.
The Crystal Palace was a truly iconic building of its time. It stood for modernity in the height of the industrial revolution and arguably the zenith of the Victorian Age. Officially titled “The Palace of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations” Punch Magazine dubbed it “The Crystal Palace” and the name stuck. The building not only housed the Great Exhibition but was itself the star exhibit. Built to a length of exactly 1,851 feet, in celebration of the year, it was constructed in just 35 weeks. The building was 408 feet across and 110 feet high at its central point. In volume it was large enough to contain four St Paul’s Cathedrals. The method of construction was revolutionary; the building had no foundations and contained not one single brick. The entire structure was fabricated from 33,000 cast iron trusses which were bolted together and simply sat on the grass of Hyde Park. The trusses were glazed with a staggering 293,655 panes and the floors were made from tens of thousands of feet of timber.
When the Palace was dismantled after the Great Exhibition it was decided that it should be given a new home on the crest of a hill in South London, giving it spectacular views and visibility from miles around. The site at Penge Park in Upper Norwood was landscaped with the balustraded terraces and flights of steps still visible today. Soon the name for the Palace came to represent the entire area. The railway line and station known as ‘Crystal Palace High Level’ was opened in 1865 and operated until the 1960s.
The great building was destroyed by fire in 1936. Paxton’s design incorporated huge quantities of timber flooring and over eighty years of dust and debris in the floor voids made a highly combustible source of fuel for the spreading flames. 89 fire engines and over 400 firemen could not save the building. Winston Churchill commented “This is the end of an age”.
Wandering through the end of that age this afternoon was a moving experience. I now have a feeling for the sheer vastness of the structure and the magnificence of its setting. All around me lay shattered flights of steps disappearing under grassy banks, or sphinxes and decapitated statues, like the saints on the parapets of some sacked abbey. All seemed so forgotten and still.
Although the plans are at a very early stage, the raising of the Crystal Palace would be an incredible boost to the local area. “It is a matter of public record that we are committed to improving Crystal Palace Park which remains a jewel, not just in Bromley, but in London’s crown,” said a spokesperson for Bromley Borough Council. The jewel seems pretty tarnished at the moment, and a re-creation of the Palace would be a breath-taking achievement but the purpose of the proposed building has not yet been disclosed. I hope that it would be as a public amenity of some sort, and a true asset to the area.