Developers ZhongRong Group recently announced the shortlisted architects for the 500 million pound redesign of the Crystal Palace. The six selected are Zaha Hadid (Olympic Aquatic Center), Rogers Stirk Harbour (Lloyd’s Building), David Chipperfield (Museum of Modern Literature), Nicholas Grimshaw (Eden Project), Haworth Tompkins (The Shed Theater), and Marks Barfield (London Eye).
The original structure was designed by Joseph Paxton for London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. Its design was ingenious and one of the great achievements of engineering. It used iron and glass on a scale never seen before, and astonished Victorian visitors. It foreshadowed many parts of modern architecture, including giant glass facades, vast naturally lit, open spaces, and the ability to be easily modified for many different floor plans and uses. Paxton’s structural frame was inspired by a type of water lily, perhaps making the building an early example of organicism. Finally, it was designed to be easily disassembled and rebuilt after the exhibition. For his design, Paxton is on par with John Roebling or Gustave Eiffel as one of the greatest engineers of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, the structure burnt down in 1936.
ZhongRong group’s plan to rebuild the structure has received support from London’s mayor Boris Johnson and the rest of the city’s government. Johnson called the Crystal Palace “a beacon of innovation” and that the new development would be a “world-class landmark building reinstated, (and) the restoration of the entire surrounding park, bringing jobs and growth.”
While I agree that there is plenty of incentive to rebuild the Crystal Palace, I think that ZhongRong is approaching the development from the completely wrong perspective. Paxton’s design was one of history’s greatest engineering feats, and the only feasible way to do justice to its ingenuity is to rebuild the design as faithfully as possible. While some modifications would need to be made, such as modern heating systems and environmental efficiency measures, ZhongRong do not need to bring in a celebrity architect to add their personal touch to the structure. For instance, Zaha Hadid’s architecture often involves unorthodox and exaggerated angles and curves. Her buildings would stand out in any city, and while her designs are always fascinating, replacing the crystal palace with one of them would almost be vandalism. I just hope that whatever architect ZhongRong selects will respect the beauty and genius of the original building.
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