Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The most wonderful building you'll never explore...

Back in 2009 I began a project with my close friend Mark at Dancing Eye called 'In the Shadows of the Crystal Palace'. At the time I'd just gained an interest in street photography and naively started to take photographs around the City of London. It was only by virtue of the absurdities of s44 anti-terror legislation, and private securities regular attempts to disallow my taking pictures of their transparent buildings, all the time being watched by their cameras, that I became interested in the new glass architecture that suddenly seemed to be springing up across the city. From there on my curiosity took over and quickly led me to the most wonderful building I'll never explore.

In researching the project I visited the Sydenham Hill site several times hoping to capture something...I'm not sure what. While he Crystal Palace Park is wonderful in its own right, I can't help my disappointment that so little remains of the building that gave it its name.

From 1854 to 1936 the site was home to Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace. Originally intended as a temporary structure to house The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London's Hyde Park, the Palace was relocated to the Sydenham site as a result of popular demand, but no doubt assisted by the commercial interest that inspired. Following its destruction by fire in 1936 the site was used to host events like motor racing until the 70's, but was otherwise left to fall into disrepair.

Today the area is dominated by the Crystal Palace transmitter erected during the 1950's. All that remains of the original site is the upper terrace with its Sphinxes and broken statues, and the restored exhibit of antediluvian reptiles in the lower park. The park's past is commemorated by a pair of arches replicating the prefabricated iron frames Paxton designed to hold his magnificent building's spectacular glass panels.

If my trips yielded little else I at least managed to capture the stunning autumn sunrise seen in my short film above. How much more glorious would it have been though to have snuck into the still standing Palace before dawn; seen the sun rise from within the great Central Trancept; watched the morning light dance across the Alhambra, Egyptian, Greek and Roman courts; and observed the eager morning crowds enter from my hiding place up above.

We may well speculate that if the building did still stand it would be little more than a mall today, but to be fair this criticism seemed to plague the building from the beginning. And so what if it is only by virtue of its absence that it maintains its aura? Doesn't this allow it to serve us as a symbol all the more?

With that in mind I'd like to end with two wonderfully evocative passages from a guide to the Crystal Palace featured in an issue of the The Leisure Hour journal from 1856:
See! like a vision of magic, its striking foreground and magnificent park come into view; whilst, beyond them the Palace rises, wondrous in extent, yet so light and aerial in aspect, as almost to defy belief that it is a thing of solid substance. 

What an enchanting scene here meets the eye! A seemingly interminable vista opens, presenting innumerable gaily-dressed groups of visitors, promenading through lines of luxuriant foliage, intermingled with statuary, from behind which arise ranges of elaborately ornamented facades, and lofty, slender, parti-coloured columns, festooned and enwreathed with graceful climbing plants, springing from the ground, and shooting out from suspended baskets, lustrous with blossoms of every hue; while, high overarching all, is a crystal canopy, stained, as it were, with the mellow blue of the heavens, or sparkling with myriads of sunlight reflections. In the foreground, covered with white and purple and crimson water-lilies, is a sheet of water, from the midst of which springs the world- renowned crystal fountain, glittering with prismatic colours. 
This passage is quoted from the full article that featured in a recent post on Lee Jackson's excellent blog The Cat's Meat Shop. Those with a taste for further Victorian delights are strongly encouraged to try Lee's full online archive The Victorian Dictionary.

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