Ian Ritchie designed a building for the Crystal palace site.
Now he has been dismissed from the project, a pedestrian imitation is in the offing.
Rowan Moore - Evening Standard Thursday 19 September 2000
Here's a metaphysical teaser: what is the spirit of Crystal Palace? Is it contained in the fairy-tale name that evokes both Cinderella's glass slipper and Prince Charming's home? Is it that of a rather average football club, or of an area of genteel suburbia, or a TV-masted hilltop in SEl9 from which you get awe-inspiring views in the capital? Or is it the adventurous spirit of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the magnificent structure Joseph Paxton built to house it, which was unsurpassed until the arrival in our own time of the glorious Dame? Or the coarsened modification of Paxton's structure that was put up in Sydenham after 1851?
This is not an idle question, as millions of pounds of developers' loot ride on it, plus a modest skim for the London Borough of Bromley. Lawyers have argued it long and expensively, and a bemused judge has given his verdict.
Let me explain. The second incarnation of the Crystal Palace burned down in 1936, since when the site has stood empty, a semi-wilderness growing on land poisoned by the by-products of the incinerated glass house. In the late 1980s Bromley council, which owns it, hit on the site as a useful cash earner that would help it improve the dilapidated park that adjoins it. Building on that site needed an act of parliament, but when the Crystal Palace Act of 1990 was duly passed, it included the stipulation that any new building should be "in the spirit of the Crystal Palace". In such a special place, was the reasoning, only a special building will do.
In due course a plan was produced for a multiplex and leisure centre. Sections of the local community were outraged, and eco-warriors turned up to camp on the site and impede a project which they saw as the next affront to nature after the Newbury bypass and Twyford Down. The protesters' main legal lever was to argue that the proposed building wasn't in the spirit of the original. Unfortunately for them the courts decided that it was, being a work of the celebrated high-tech architect Ian Ritchie, in whose skilful use of steel and glass Paxton might possibly recognise a kindred soul.
That seemed to be that. Victory to the developers scheme could proceed unimpeded. But no. For now London and Regional Properties, the developer, has decided to dispense with the services of Ian Ritchie and get another practice called RHWL to finish the job. RHWL is a firm of middle-of-the-road commercial architects who have done some acceptable buildings and some execrable. They are not by any stretch of the imagination true heirs of Paxton.
The building will still broadly follow Ritchie's design, but the details will suffer, and in this sort of building God is in the details. It's as if Prince Albert had said to Paxton, "Thanks for the interesting sketch, old boy, now we'll get Messrs Jobber and Jobber to knock something out along those lines." Such actions are not in the spirit of the original Crystal Palace.
RHWL says it has worked before as a humble midwife to the schemes of more celebrated architects, with successful results. The difference is that on those jobs it collaborated fully with the latter. At Crystal Palace Ritchie is off the scene and not happy about it. In a letter to the Architects' Journal he says that London and Regional Properties wanted "new budget, programme and procurement conditions" which "we could not accept considering the status, sensitivity and high quality the project demands". So the developers called in RHWL, which wasn't so fussy. RHWL will protest that the building will be just as good, but then why lose the architect most likely to give it a good building?
In the end, its all about money. London and Regional wanted its building cheaper, and if this means nastier, so be it. On an everyday project this might be its prerogative, but this is not an everyday situation. The view makes this site one of the city's splendours, and the building that used to stand there was one of the greatest in British history. I don't share the eco-warriors view that nothing should ever be built there, but whatever is built should be magnificent. It is not a place to cut corners.
Meanwhile, the logic behind the development is unravelling, at least from the point of view of any public benefit. The theory was that London and Regional would pay Bromley council for the site, and the proceeds would form part of a much larger assembly of Lottery and other funds,which would then transform the sad old park and athletics centre. Unfortunately, the Lottery has yielded Bromley a trickle, not a flood, and, while it's still getting £6.1 million from the developers this won't go far. It's a paltry mess of pottage for which to sell its birthright.
The Crystal Palace proposals have always been on the borderline of acceptability, but they are now well on the wrong side of that line. They can still be stopped, as the planning permissions for the site allow changes to detail to be vetoed. English Heritage is on the case, saying that the "guarantee is now no longer there" that "a building of real quality can be delivered". The Greater London Authority is also unhappy.
The final decision rests with the London Borough of Bromley. One might hope that its planners would not be influenced by the £6.1 million the council stands to gain, but the omens aren't good. Stuart Macmillan, its chief planner, has tried to excuse the developers by saying that Ritchie's office is not up to a job of this size which is piffle. Ritchie has shown himself capable of far larger projects.
Bromley has not covered itself in glory over the Crystal Palace saga, but it has one last chance to redeem itself and send the cheapskates packing.
Last updated 21/09/00