Bromley Unitary Development Plan

Proof of Philip Kolvin

Crystal Palace Park

Crystal Palace Campaign

Section 4

"As inspiring as the Parthenon …. as important as Stonehenge."

The Architectural Review, on the Crystal Palace.[10]


A Planning History of the Park


The Crystal Palace started its life in the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851, and was dismantled at the end of the exhibition. Its designer, Joseph Paxton, formed the Crystal Palace Company, redesigned and greatly enlarged the Palace, and set it in Penge Place at Sydenham1 in 1854. The Park was carved out of a largely undeveloped area of wood, meadow, parkland and common that formed the setting of the historic mansion of Penge Place, none of which now remains.


The building and grounds were a major attraction. The exhibitions in the building itself comprised tropical palms, plaster replicas of Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek and Arabic architecture set in a series of courts, and a concert auditorium. These were complemented by ambitious landscaping in the grounds designed by Edward Milner and water engineering by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. A depiction of the building is at Appendix 5.


While the size of the building has occasionally been prayed in aid by Bromley, it is fair to point out that the conditions in Victorian England were very different from now. First, the Palace was set in open countryside: one could ride to it from Central London without leaving heath or common land. Second, the urban pressures which have necessitated the preservation of parkland did not then exist. Third, the motor car had not been invented. Fourth, there were two railway stations serving the site: the high level station which led through an elaborate subway to the Palace has been demolished and built over.


The building, which was the first large scale glass building and came to define architectural modernity for a century or more, secured a strong place in the affections and cultural heritage of the nation. Queen Victoria was a great admirer, recording:

"The effect is quite wonderful. The sun shining in through the transept gave a fairy-like appearance. The building is so light and graceful, in spite of its immense size."


The name "Crystal Palace" was not official: it was a nickname given by Punch and secured through common acclaim. It was, in fact, a crystalline Palace.


The Park was the first municipal park to exhibit horticulture on a substantial scale. Indeed, in one year, 50,000 scarlet pelargoniums were planted, and in 1854, the Cottage Gardener noted the collections of calceolarias, lobelias, petunias, verbenas, gaultherias, alyssums, nemophilas, salvias, heliotropes, dwarf rhododendrons and azaleas, displays which influenced exhibitions across the rest of the country.[12]


Large firework events took place in the Park. Performers were attracted here. For example, the tight rope walker Blondin fried an egg at great height. Handel's Messiah was attended by 81,000 people in 2 days. The F.A. Cup Final came to be played here for many years from 1895, and later motor racing became a popular spectator sport. Pisarro painted the building and Zola fled here from the Dreyfus affair. The Company's School of Practical Engineering and School of Art, Science and Literature were housed in buildings on the south-west boundary, the former now housing the museum.


It is right to point out that the building never paid, partly because of the over-ambition of Paxton himself in the original conception, and partly because the building was too far from Central London. The Crystal Palace Company twice went bankrupt, in 1887 and 1909. But when, in 1936, it burned to the ground, Churchill rightly encapsulated the mood of the nation by mourning "the end of an era."


There was a general recognition that the Crystal Palace had helped to define the Victorian era, raising and embodying our national aspirations. Tennyson wrote of it:

She brought a vast design to pass
When Europe and the scattered ends
Of our fierce world did meet as friends
And brethren in her halls of glass.


The London News Chronicle stated: "The Crystal Palace was built for the promotion of universal happiness and brotherhood, to summon all nations to the peaceful field of a noble competition, where all might strive who could do most to embellish, improve and elevate their common humanity."


In purely architectural terms, the building embodied a quantum leap. The Architectural Review stated that it had liberalised architecture and provided the "first structural renaissance of architecture since the middle ages."[13]


As a purely subjective observation, the Park still exhibits a sense of place and of history. There are great sweeping views across the terraces, and striking remains of stairs, sphinxes and other features. People locally still feel extremely attached to the memory of the Palace and to the Park, which was its seat.


The history of the Park since the Palace burned down is one of fragmentation and failure.


In 1941, Brunel's water towers were demolished out of fear that they were acting as a beacon for the Luftwaffe.


In 1964, the National Sports Centre was built, the argument at the time being that this was in lieu of substantial construction on the top site. The Centre, which is now badly dilapidated, is needed locally if not regionally, but is widely disliked. There is a plethora of internal fencing and level changes which create an unfriendly, somewhat illegible, environment. The facilities themselves are now very run down. Most importantly, the Centre is built directly across Paxton's central axis, which is harmful to the entire landscaping conception of the Park. Moreover, the Centre extends laterally across the Park, practically severing the Park, so that it actually functions largely as two parks, with a green strip to the north linking the two.


In 1986, the Park was devolved to Bromley, with the demise of the old Greater London Council.


In 1987, planning permission was given for the erection of a hotel/leisure complex and/or conference centre or other recreational buildings (87/1733).


In 1989, permission was given for a 150-bed hotel, multi-screen cinema, health club and other leisure facilities (89/1690).


In 1993, permission was given for a 101-bed hotel with conference facility, multi-screen cinema, bowling centre, nightclub and other leisure facilities (93/0063).


In 1995, permission was given for a 140-bed hotel and conference facility, multi-screen cinema, bowling centre, nightclub and other facilities (93/0178).


 In 1998, permission was given for the multiplex cinema which launched the Crystal Palace Campaign (97/0858).


It is interesting to note that none of these large commercial schemes came to fruition, which is probably a partial reflection on the lack of strategic roads serving this site and its out of town centre location.


It is also interesting to note that it was only the last scheme which aroused significant objection. Having spent five years working with local people, I can say that there was a general lack of awareness of the earlier proposals, predominantly because most affected by them were not Bromley residents and were not consulted upon them. One thing the Campaign set out to do was to ensure that there was general knowledge about the multiplex proposals, and the strength of the Campaign bears testament to the strength of the community response. But also, it is quite clear that the 1990s saw a real growth in public concern about green issues in general and parkland protection in particular, so that what might have passed muster a decade ago is now seen in a new light.


The multiplex scheme was part of a mix of developments proposed for the Park, all of which have failed to a greater or lesser degree:

  • The multiplex building itself, which was to raise a premium of just £6m, and in the event has cost the Council a very large sum, thought to run into millions, although some of this has been recouped in damages from the developer.
  • A project to relandscape the Park itself, for which a sum in excess of £26m was sought from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Of that, approximately £3m was awarded for restoration of the dinosaur area, paths, and cricket pitch. The remainder of the project was considered simply too modern for an historic landscape. The restoration includes a somewhat utilitarian farm building in concrete and gabion, which was to replace a farm closed by Bromley but which has stood without existing or proposed uses for over two years. The dinosaur restorations, however, despite lengthy delays, have resulted in the commendable regeneration of an important historic asset in the Park.
  • A £40m restoration of the National Sports Centre, which was rejected in toto by the Sports Lottery. Sport England has decided not to renew its lease in 2004, which places the future of the Centre in jeopardy.
  • A concert platform designed by the multiplex architect Ian Ritchie. While this won a design award, it is only right to point out that it is viewed locally with at best derision. A series of public concerts over the years have failed, and the platform is now largely unused.


One does not recount the recent failures with any sense of relish. But they do underline the need to start with a blank sheet of paper and work up a framework masterplan for the sustainable regeneration of the whole Park, in partnership with the local community, other local authorities and regional and national bodies including, for example, English Heritage, the Greater London Authority and Sport England.


In this context, it is worth pointing out that none of the top site planning permissions were ever implemented, and all have expired. Bromley formally resolved to do nothing to perpetuate the multiplex permission on the grounds that there was no prospect of the development coming forward. There is, therefore, for the first time in 16 years, an opportunity to stand back and write planning policies which reflect the proper future for this important park unconstrained by existing permissions.

Top of Section; Previous Section (3); Next Section (5); Contents


[10] - Quoted in A Thing in Disguise, the Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton, Kate Colquhoun (Fourth Estate, 2003).
[11] - The name and area became known as Crystal Palace only after the Crystal Palace was built there.
[12] - The Victorian Garden, Tom Carter (Bell & Hyman, 1984).
[13] - Quoted in A Thing in Disguise, the Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton, Kate Colquhoun (Fourth Estate, 2003).

©Philip Kolvin