P163 - The Palace (Magazine) - March 2008 Issue 14 (page 7); Letter to the editor by Ray Sacks
TOPIC: WHY REBUILD THE CRYSTAL PALACE??
A decade ago when the Crystal Palace Campaign - with the support of most people in the area - opposed the construction of a 20-cinema multiplex in Crystal Palace Park, the idea of building a version of the old Sydenham Crystal Palace was mooted. On the face of it, it seemed to be a pleasant and nostalgic contrast to the multiplex. But looked at more closely, the proposed new Palace presents very similar problems for the park and local area as the multiplex would have done.
It is worth reminding your readers why the multiplex was opposed so vehemently by so many. As a commercial venture it would have needed to attract about four million customers a year in order to be viable - hence the thousand space car-park on its roof. The proposed new building, with a hotel and a leisure group as tenants, would need to do the same, albeit with underground parking, and would have the same problems of access roads, tunnels and traffic logistics as the multiplex. Far from improving business in the area, the new project would result in local roads becoming so overwhelmed with traffic, air and noise pollution that any potential benefit would be totally lost.
The building of the original Crystal Palace in 1854 was a glorious tribute to Victorian innovation and ambition. But consider how different the economic, demographic and environmental circumstances were then. A hundred and fifty years ago, the suburb of Sydenham was a thinly populated area on the outskirts of London. The Victorians simply built two railway lines to bring crowds of people to Crystal Palace. A hundred trains a day steamed into the high level station (now the site of housing alongside Crystal Palace Parade) bringing visitors via the magnificent subway straight into the Palace. Today only the low level station – the current Crystal Palace Station - still exists. And the surrounding area has become a densely populated urban setting - all the more reason for maintaining our open spaces.
The proposed new building would take up as much of the park as the multiplex would have done and would limit the magnificent views from the ridge. In his 2004 book “Palace of the People’, J.R. Pigott reminds us that the original site was referred to as the “English Tyrol... with its magnificent panoramas, exceeded by only a few in the world, overlooking the park towards Surrey and Kent, and on the other side towards the tall buildings of London and the masts of ships”. If the current approach to planning with its emphasis on ‘sustainability’ was in force in Paxton's time, it is doubtful that the Sydenham Crystal Palace would have passed the tests. With today's sensibilities, one could even envisage the first stirrings of Victorian eco-warriors.
No one can doubt the architectural merits of Paxton's ‘Crystal Palace' (as it was dubbed by Punch in 1851), originally built in Hyde Park and transferred three years later to Sydenham. It was truly a seminal design and has influenced architecture ever since. Paxton’s work was boldly original and I suspect he would be disappointed rather than flattered by an approach which offers replication without genuine innovation. The proposed pastiche of the old Crystal Palace shows nothing of the flair of Paxton in his use of the largest glass sheet available at the time and the new wrought iron material in girders to span the nave of the building. His brilliant use of modularisation and the logistics of, for example, handling the glass installation were cutting edge. If anything, Paxton might have been more intrigued by Chris Wilkinson's recent "floating bubble" proposal, a truly advanced design with a purpose.
The Campaign opposed the idea of rebuilding Crystal Palace in 1999 and continues to oppose it. The scale of the proposal puts it firmly into the category of large commercial development and the need to generate a profit from it will outweigh any local aspirations. What Crystal Palace Park needs now is a fresh approach, one which is genuinely forward looking, not a memorial to the past, nor one that is constrained by commercial ambitions, but one that is balanced, imaginative and leaves as much of the park as possible free and open to current and future generations.
Crystal Palace Campaign
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11/04/08 Last updated: 11/04/08