Late in 1995 Bromley embarked upon an international competitive process for a 12 acre commercial leisure development on the site of the old Crystal Palace (destroyed by fire in 1936). Three factors were seen as crucial

a - the leisure mix
b - the level of premium which could be obtained from the chosen developer and
c - the design of the building.


In July 1996, London & Regional Properties Ltd (L&RP) were chosen by Bromley from a short-list of six developers. Their architects were to be Chapman Taylor - the same company as had designed the 'Glades' shopping development in Bromley town centre.


The Chapman Taylor design was clad in glass and had a car park in the basement, restaurants on the ground floor and 18-20 cinemas on the first floor. However, L&RP having been chosen as the winners, the Chapman Taylor design was promptly rejected by English Heritage and the very Bromley Council which had selected it under the competitive process.


A panel, comprising L&RP, Bromley's Director of Leisure and Community Services and officers from English Heritage interviewed several leading architects to work with Chapman Taylor to design a building

"... more appropriate to this historic setting".


The chosen architect was Ian Ritchie who had, coincidentally just designed the concert platform on the Park (rusty, disliked and £254,000 over budget). Ian Ritchie was a commissioner with the Royal Fine Art Commission (RFAC) and continues now as a commissioner with the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) - the successor to the RFAC.


Ian Ritchie produced a design which reversed Chapman Taylor's; it has 20 cinemas on the ground floor, restaurants on the first floor, and a 950-space car park on the roof accessed by huge external ramps. So, as regards the original international competitive process, this had counted for nothing. Chapman Taylor were now effectively out of the picture; the architects retained by the five failed short-listed competitors had wasted their time; Ritchie had never taken part in the competitive process but had now become the lead architect.


During continued design work, the ground floor walls of the building were altered. Initially, they were steel, with quartz aggregate sections over which water would cascade, reflected in the angled, overhanging windows above; the walls were now to become gabion - granite boulders encased in stainless steel mesh.


In the summer of 2000, a new company, Renton Howard Wood Levin (RHWL) was chosen by L&RP as delivery architects after Ian Ritchie decided to walk away. A reason for so doing could be found in his reported comments in the Architect's Journal of September 7th: L&RP had

"... imposed new budget, programme and procurement conditions. .. which we could not accept considering the status, sensitivity and high quality that the project demands".


On 18th September, Malcolm Woods of English Heritage wrote to Bromley:

". . . how disappointed and concerned we are that this project is not to be seen to completion" [by Ian Ritchie].


In the agenda for Bromley's 3rd October Development Control Committee meeting it was revealed that the solid gabion walls, a structure with which Ritchie was familiar, would now be replaced with facing stonework on a structural framework.


At the 3rd October meeting, Stuart Macmillan, Bromley's Chief Planner said:

"The public might not know, but we did have a look at a mock-up of a gabion wall. To put a lot of stones of different sizes in place is quite a difficult operation, and for a building of this size . would have to be carted down from Scotland. In fact, it 's not a very sustainable way of doing it. What has been suggested is that they have a concrete wall, with a hollow behind it, and front to it which looks like a gabion wall (emphasis added). English Heritage are happy with that arrangement. It is a cheaper and more sustainable way of doing it".


Conditional on the committee members seeing samples of what was now to be little more than stone cladding for the new 'Crystal Palace', permission for this and other design detail was granted at the 3rd October meeting.


However, despite the assurances given at this meeting, English Heritage's misgivings were rekindled by its Chairman, Sir Neil Cossons. On 10th October he wrote to Darren Johnson, Mayor Livingstone's advisor on environmental issues, expressing his dismay that Ritchie had been

"... replaced by another firm working to a different commercial brief, and we fear that the quality may suffer as a result. We are indeed looking carefully at the design".


And on 24th October, Ken Livingstone, at the mayor's inaugural People's Question Time said:

"Very often, the developer will get a good, well respected architect when they put in their planning application. Once they've got planning approval they then go for some cheapskate and then downgrade the development. That's exactly what happened at Crystal Palace, which makes it even more of a scandal".

The debate continues...

Ken Lewington, Vice-Chairman, Crystal Palace Campaign. March 2001

Note: The 200 acre Crystal Palace Park is at the northernmost limit of the London Borough of Bromley; it meets four other London boroughs at its boundary - Croydon, Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark. The Park is listed Grade II* (two star) on the English Heritage Register of Historic Parks and Gardens (- as are Buckingham Palace Gardens).

The 12-acre site for the proposed commercial leisure operation is the highest wooded ridge in the metropolis south of the Thames.

The Crystal Palace Campaign holds no brief for the Ritchie or any other design - it wants no such development on the Crystal Palace site.

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17/03/01 Last updated 17/03/01