(P140) SO GOOD THEY BUILT IT TWICE - Sunday Times 19 February 2004
The first is more famous, but it was Crystal Palace Mark II that changed design for ever, says HUGH PEARMAN
The Crystal Palace comes close, very close, to being the single most influential piece of architecture ever-built in Britain. I think we must concede that Inigo Jones's Banqueting House in Whitehall (1622), which introduced Renaissance classicism to the nation, had a greater impact over time. In the modern world, however, the Crystal Palace beats everything else. The year 1851, when it was first built, was Year Zero for what eventually came to be known as high-tech. Look at buildings such as Richard Rogers's Lloyd's of London HQ, and there the Crystal Palace lives on. Yet the most astonishing thing about it was that they had to go and build it twice.
An excellent exhibition, Crystal Palace at Sydenham, is now running at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, in south London. Sir John Soane's masterly little gallery of 1814 marks another significant turning point in architecture, so you are in for a double treat. There is something slightly odd about having such a huge, sprawling thing as the Crystal Palace squeezed, so to speak, into a jewel box, but this scale thing is just one of the-enduring mysteries of architecture. Dulwich may be small, but it has given over an entire enfilade of rooms to the show, and I'm surprised it has received so little recognition for its chutzpah in doing so. This could well turn out to be the architectural exhibition of the year.
The nub of it is in that title: "at Sydenham". This is about the Crystal Palace Mark II. Most people are aware of the tale of the original Crystal Palace - essentially a huge prefabricated greenhouse - being designed and built in double-quick time for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park. The story of how the Duke of Devonshire's gardener/designer and self-taught glass house specialist, Joseph Paxton, came to produce such a wonder is one of the great moments of the 19th century.
The Palace could not stay in Hyde Park once the Great Exhibition had finished. Being prefabricated, it could easily be dismantled. A number of possible new locations for it were considered. as they always are after world expos. Such plans seldom come to anything. At one point, it was going to go to New York But then a group of entrepreneurs, Paxton among them, bought a tract of land high on the south London ridge at Sydenham. There they rebuilt the Palace, reusing the original components, but adding to them extensively. For me, this was the revelation of the show. I knew it had grown, but not by quite how much.
The Palace became much longer, acquiring two barrel-vaulted end transepts as well as the original central one. Connecting these was a longitudinal vaulted nave - also missing from the Great Exhibition version. It was 50% bigger in volume, two tiers taller and used twice as much glass. That made it 1,608ft long, 312ft wide and 168ft high to the crown of the central transept. It was better proportioned. In fact, it was better all round than the Crystal Palace Mark I, in everything except commercial success. Its park, with its extraordinary (and temperamental) fountains, designed by Paxton at full stretch, was considerably more spectacular than anything Hyde Park could provide. Brunel was conscripted to build two great conical-hatted water towers, standing at each end of the Palace like pagodas, to provide the pressure. This was to be a great place of public education and entertainment, envisaged as a commercial rival to the emerging museums district of South Kensington (which, ironically, the profits from the Great Exhibition were funding). All in all, it was prodigious. And, true to the spirit of the times, it was fast. Crystal Palace Mark II opened in 1854. John Ruskin described it as "a cucumber frame between two chimneys". He would.
Of course, it was in the wrong place. Then as now, this part of south London was too far-flung, too difficult to get to. It was built there mainly because a railway proprietor who wanted the passenger trade, Leo Schuster, had a large estate he was prepared to sell to get it. As an investment, it was a disaster. Out there, it should have been made smaller, not bigger. But this was not the way of its stovepipe-hatted progenitors. The directors took a leaf out of Brunel's book. It had worked once, incredibly well. If it was bigger, logic suggested it should work even better, drawing in even more people. There were plenty of doubters around at the time, but they were steamrollered.
With our recent experience of the Millennium Dome, who is to say that we do things any better? We just waste public rather than private money, and do it in less entertaining fashion. At the Crystal Palace, you could enter ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, or Byzantium, or take part in a concert with a 22,000 strong audience, or treat it as a natural-history museum. Later, it was home to the first incarnation of the Imperial War Museum, a place that has now acquired its own modern equivalent of a Crystal Palace vault.
The important thing is that it was built. And it existed for 82 years before it finally burnt down in 1936, thanks to dodgy electrics and tinder-dry timber floors. Tragically, this happened at a time when it was undergoing something of a revival under its energetic manager of the time, Sir Henry Buckland. All the endless plans to rebuild some kind of worthy structure on the site are forever doomed to be eclipsed by the memory. We cannot recapture those times. We would be mad to try to. But the Crystal Palace is now in the DNA of world architecture. As Le Corbusier wrote after it burnt down, it was the "herald of a new age". Without it, so much today would be different.
Crystal Palace at Sydenham,
Dulwich Picture Gallery, SE21
until 18 April 2004
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