(P138) Crystal Palace show prompts concern over Sydenham park

By Marcus Binney - "Timesonline", 16 February 2004

AN ENTHRALLING exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery brings to life one of London's greatest and most forgotten monuments, the Crystal Palace as reconstructed by Sir Joseph Paxton on Sydenham Hill in South London.

Everyone knows the images of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. At Sydenham, Paxton rebuilt it on a still grander scale, with hoop-roofed pavilions at the ends as well as the centre. He also spent as much on the waterworks as on the palace itself, boasting that he had surpassed Versailles - with 11,000 jets d'eau and two fountains rising 280ft, almost 100ft higher than Nelson's Column.

Inside, the second Crystal Palace was a spellbinding precursor of Hollywood in its golden age, with fine art courts containing large-scale reproductions of historical architectural styles - the inspiration for both Holman Hunt and Alma-Tadema. There was a spectacular array of great sculpture, cast in plaster, and a luscious winter garden. Much of it was the creation of Owen Jones, "the colour king ", and Matthew Digby Wyatt.

The concert hall could accommodate more than 8,000 singers and instrumentalists and an audience of 22,000. It was here that Blondin carried out his spectacular tightrope walks, and during the 1920s the newly formed Imperial War Museum was housed in the palace.

The Crystal Palace was enjoying a brilliant late flowering under Sir Henry Buckland, the best of its managers, when it caught fire in 1936 when a spark ignited a gas container and the wind caused a tunnel effect which quickly consumed the structure. It is painful to watch the Pathé News film coverage of the fire shown in the Dulwich exhibition.

The question ever since has been what to do with the site and the splendid park that Paxton created in front of the palace. During the Second World War, 385,000 tons of rubble from blitzed buildings were dumped there. More recently a group of campaigners have called in Chris Wilkinson, the architect of the Moving Eye bridge across the Tyne to Newcastle, to design an iconic replacement. He has designed a remarkable silver Zeppelin to float above the remains of Paxton's upper terrace, which are to be used for exhibitions.

Unquestionably the views over London would be thrilling. The novel design pays deft homage to Paxton while remaining elevated above the surviving Victorian terraces.

Over half a century, the grand united sweep of Paxton's landscape has been broken up piecemeal. A long-term plan is now needed to restore its unity and to preserve and restore key historic elements.

One major problem is that Paxton's large fountain basins below the palace have been built on &emdash; one becoming an outdoor athletics track, the other transformed into one of London's only two Olympic-standard indoor swimming pools. This is an adventurous structure, listed Grade II* though built only in the 1950s, which is now threatened with closure.

Protests have meant that it has been granted a stay of execution for two years, but there is a possibility that it will be demolished. This could be justified only if the land were to revert to parkland with reconstructed fountain basins. One alternative to the demolition of the sports facilities would be to provide new ones at the edge of the park, near the railway station.

Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, is in the process of taking over both the park and the National Sports Centre. The danger is that this will lead to yet more exploitation - already there is talk of a hotel on the upper terraces.

This is all the more ironic as Bromley borough's plans for a leisure development on the upper terraces have been withdrawn, to the relief of most residents. However, many people are unhappy about new landscaping by Kathryn Gustafson, which has involved the destruction of hundreds of trees, including 160-year-old cedars.

With justification the Heritage Lottery Fund turned down the second and third phases of the Gustafson plan. Now surely is the time to produce a long- term strategy for the whole park which will open the way to recreating some of its old glory while respecting the needs and concerns of residents.

For John Payne, the chairman of the Crystal Palace Community Association, one key priority is repair of Paxton's remarkable cavernous columned subway. This was created by Italian craftsmen, in coloured brick, as a VIP route from the station which emerged directly inside the palace.

The Dulwich exhibition provides an inspiring and absorbing perspective, and shows that Sydenham was once one of the greatest of all Victorian landscape creations.

Paxton is as important as Olmsted in America - indeed Paxton's Birkenhead Park inspired New York's Central Park. We urgently need a large vision for the whole park, which will respect history without necessarily being a slave to it.

Such a plan would have steadily to undo years of piecemeal exploitation, but it would ensure that in 50 years' time Sydenham could rank with the Royal Parks as one of the sights of London.

The Crystal Palace at Sydenham is at Dulwich Picture Gallery until April 18; 020-8299 8711.

Palace of the People: The Crystal Palace at Sydenham, 1854-1936 by Jan Piggott is published by Hurst at £22.50. Available at Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Crystal Palace Museum.

Ed. The current Stakeholders dialogue group was set up by the Crystal Palace Campaign in order to promote a meeting of minds of people who have an interest in the Park following the many years of bitter conflict with Bromley Council. For over a year we have worked at bringing about (a gradual) belief that consensus is feasible and have succeeded in launching the process that is giving rise to a brighter future for the Park.
The Interim Report of the Dialogue Group provides some detail of where this is all leading. The process has also generated a lot of interest in those people seeking to put forward ideas for the Park - most of these can be seen at the Dulwich Picture Gallery (Linbury Room) and no doubt more will surface as the debating becomes more public.

A good summary of events has recently been published by Green Spaces in their Spaces and Places, Febuary 2004.

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17/2/04 Last Updated 17/2/04