Thursday, 3 October 2013

Can Paxton's Crystal Palace be rebuilt?

Over the years, plans to restore the site of the Crystal Palace have come and gone, stymied by local agendas, politics, planning and a lack of funds. I have seen sympathetic butterfly houses suggested, trees mapping out the template of the original palace, a car park, houses, a shopping complex and a huge private scheme which envisaged hotels, shops, a conference centre and the inclusion of an Olympic sized swimming pool  alongside restoration of the enormous fountains. All have been conceived, some with greater detail than others, but they have fallen by the wayside.

Several local pressure groups have their own, competing ideas and have been known to take consultants on site, show them around and then, one by one, take the expert aside to whisper that the others had little idea what they were talking about. It is no surprise nothing significant has happened.

But yesterday Mayor of London Boris Johnson was joined by Mr Ni Zhaoxing, the chairman of the ZhongRong Group. Mr Zhaoxing – worth $1.25 billion and 76th on the China Rich List according to Forbes – has a dream of restoring Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace to its former glory (a video of their scheme is below). It wouldn't be the same as Paxton’s original, which sadly burned down in 1936, but will update the ‘innovative, translucent and delicate structure of the original along with its size and scale’, about 50 metres high and 500 metres long.

The palace would be a ‘culture-led exhibition and employment space’, the Italian terraces restored, a central tree lined boulevard running through much of the park created, the concert bowl renovated and the dinosaurs given new lighting (they were only recently restored in 2002). Sadly, no mention of the magnificent fountains which came with the original building but you never know.

They anticipate it would feature a hotel and conference facilities, studios, galleries and other commercial space. Not altogether too dissimilar from the scheme I mentioned above. Currently it remains all a bit vague. Detailed plans are, we are assured, ‘to be developed’. But if they want to stick with their timetable, they had better get cracking. A figure of £500million has been mooted for the project and they hope an application could be submitted as early as Autumn 2014, with building starting in winter 2015. And all of that includes the minefield of consultation, with the myriad of interests bickering for attention.

Paxton's original Crystal Palace

Leader of Bromley Council Stephen Carr describes it as a ‘visionary proposal’ but admits it is at an ‘early stage’. ‘It has to be worthy of serious consideration,’ he believes. They claim up to 2,000 jobs could be created.

On its website Bromley Council says the park needs ‘significant financial investment to its infrastructure to ensure that it can be enjoyed by generations to come,’ and this plan boasts that it would not need housing to be built. But it does mean handing over a large swathe of the park to a private, Chinese investment company. We know that: ‘The investor has submitted a request for an exclusivity agreement from Bromley Council.'

And already there are concerns about the project. In a letter to Bromley Council in August, the Crystal Palace Community Stakeholder Group (CSG), after they got wind of the scheme following a private reception at the Houses of Parliament, said the ‘proposal threatens the growth of community engagement and enthusiasm for a new sustainable future for the park’. They fear the park would be ‘under threat from commercial developers’. And they are particularly worried the scheme may jeopardise the Masterplan for the park, which has spent years working its way through the planning system, as well as scuppering chances for a Heritage Lottery Fund bid.

And in the London Assembly, the Green Party are already against it. Assembly member Darren Johnson said:

‘While I’m sure many people would love to see the Crystal Palace raised from the ashes, this precious parkland isn’t the right place for it. When the palace was moved there in the 1850s the newly laid out park was near countryside, but today it’s an urban park with a lot of space already taken up by the national sports centre, car parks, road and the caravan site.

‘The Mayor and the council need to concentrate on enhancing the park and backing the community groups who are doing their best to restore heritage features without losing green space.’

And as with the CSG, he raised the prospect losing the chance for an HLF bid.

One does not want to be too negative as it may be an interesting scheme and it is certainly ambitious. There are serious people on board, such as the co-founder of the Eden Project, Sir Tim Smit, who will sit on an advisory panel, chaired by Boris Johnson, which will have the challenging task of steering a path through the minefields ahead. But, at the moment, it feels it was too early to announce, such are the scant details. Details need to be urgently fleshed out and meetings with local community group need to be held within weeks. 


It only seemed sensible to go up to Crystal Palace, from our little Penge cottage, to see what locals made of the idea. A prominent local businessman, who has been involved in previous restoration plans, was very keen.

'I think it's fantastic. Brilliant. It's definitely going to happen. The government are behind it, Boris is behind it; it's inevitable. They'll be a few people round here who won't like. They'll say it's like a Westfield, but it won't be. It will be great. I've been involved in plans before and I've had poison pen letters. But the vast majority of people will be right behind it. Great for the area'

A woman at the Westow pub, however, was a bit more circumspect.

'Oh no, it won't be a replica, it will be an ugly, horrible thing and they'll fill it with Caffe Nero's. We'll lose green space, and they better restore the park properly.'

Not scientific, or comprehensive, survey; just a bit of local anecdote.

Meanwhile, the egregious Stephen Bayley, writing for the Telegraph, says a new Crystal Palace will 'shame Britain'. In an absurd, pompous article, he thinks a new palace will be a 'convention centre for the lanyard-festooned suits with the inevitable yawn-inducing hotel' and calls it 'architectural debauchery'. yes, there are plenty of hurdles and issues ahead, but this is written before he has seen any plans, architectural drawings, even before an architect has been appointed. In fact, his biggest concern appears to be that such a building might appear in south east London. He writes:

'The legacy of 1851 was Albertopolis, the extraordinary collection of colleges and museums that make South Kensington one of the intellectual centres of the worlds. That's not going to happen in Penge.'

This is true. Penge is never going to compete with South Kensington, with its palace, museums and conspicuous wealth. But if he ever bothered to come to Penge he would find plenty of links with old Prince Albert, who, despite his regal bearing, wasn't such an insufferable snob; such as a beautiful estate of workers' cottages, which, if not based on his designs, were certainly inspired by them.

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