Yesterday, a group of Chinese developers along with London mayor Boris Johnson announced the shortlist of architects picked to design the new Crystal Palace. It includes some of the U.K.’s best architectural firms. But what is the Crystal Palace?
To answer the question of what the Crystal Palace is, we actually have to go way back and answer the question of what the Crystal Palace was. Back in 1851, London hosted the Great Exhibition, also known as the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. At the tail end of the Industrial Revolution, London was the center of all things industrial; its factories were the envy of the world, its culture booming (the Great Exhibition was attended by Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Lewis Carroll, Charlotte Brontë, and others), and the Great Exhibition was to be a great bragging point: look at all the things we can make! Though it wasn’t branded a World’s Fair, it was the first in that series, and its format carried through for decades.
The Crystal Palace was the centerpiece of the Great Exhibition. It was built to house the show’s exhibitions, so you can imagine how enormous it was: a whopping 990,000 square feet of space. It was constructed of glass and iron using a cheaper and easier method of creating plate glass that was invented just a few years before the Great Exhibition, so most people had never seen so much glass before and were astounded at the luxury of glass walls and a glass ceiling. After the Great Exhibition, it was disassembled (at great cost) and moved from Hyde Park to an affluent South London suburb, where it stayed until it accidentally burned down in 1936. The glass itself didn’t burn, but inside the Palace were tons of dry timber flooring and various flammable exhibitions, which burned like crazy.
For Londoners, the Crystal Palace is a symbol of the moment when their city was the peak of human achievement–when they could shock the world with what they could make. In the 1970s, the site of the Crystal Palace was used as a concert venue, under the name “Crystal Palace Garden Parties.” And that’s why it makes sense that some billionaires are trying to resurrect it.
In October of last year, a Chinese billionaire named Ni Zhaoxing, active mostly in energy and real estate in China, pledged to rebuild the Crystal Palace for a new, modern London. It’ll house a hotel, a conference center, Zhaoxing’s own art collection, and much more to be determined, including some kind of retail space. Some are protesting the estimated $835 million project, saying it will replace the much-needed open space in that area.
But plans are moving full-steam ahead; a shortlist of British architects are now working on the new designs for the modern-day Crystal Palace, which Zhaoxing claims will take inspiration from the original Victorian design. That’ll include extensive landscaping and planting and a large tree-lined boulevard, like in the original design, as well as a dinosaur museum to pay homage to the Great Exhibition, which was the first public exhibition of dinosaurs. The designs are very early in their planning stages; we don’t know quite how it’ll be modernized, aside from the retail and hotel elements. The Chinese group does mention that the glass will be high-end material, “with excellent solar and thermal control and energy efficiency.”