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Nobody’s got a clue what this new Crystal Palace is for

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The Chinese group looking to rebuild Crystal Palace should put detail on its proposals, writes Rory Olcayto

When it was announced in October last year that Chinese developer ZhongRong Group was going to build a new Crystal Palace in the south London park, and on the footprint of Joseph Paxton’s vanished original, it seemed a little far-fetched.

Despite London Mayor Boris Johnson’s press conference on the sweeping steps that lead to the ill-fated site (the monumental greenhouse caught fire on four separate occasions during its time on the Sydenham site, in 1866, in 1923, conclusively in 1936 and then once more in 1950, which erased it almost completely), there was an air of disbelief surrounding the proposal. And unlike, say, the 2012 Olympics project, which, from the moment London was announced as host city in 2005, captured the public’s imagination, few jumped for joy at the prospect of seeing the palace rebuilt.

Perhaps the latest news will spark genuine interest: A shortlist for the half-a-billion pound project has been drawn up and, as the mayor says, using parlance common to the architectural press, it’s more than a little ‘stellar’. Zaha, Chipperfield, Grimshaw and Rogers are the main draw, of course, with London Eye architect Marks Barfield the dark horse (there’s always a dark horse on a shortlist like this) and Haworth Tompkins - probably to the bafflement of the Chinese backers - making up the numbers. Excellent though the practice is, Haworth Tompkins is an odd choice for a project of this scale and is most likely there to offset the selection panel’s reliance on starchitects.

But what kind of project is this anyway? The brief calls for the winning architect ‘to create an internationally recognised landmark building’ (an icon, in other words) which, once completed,’will be a cultural centre of international standing, responding to modern-day requirements for social, economic and environmental sustainability’ and ‘will benefit both the local area and London as a global city, through an awe-inspiring design.’ Translation: nobody’s got a clue what this new Crystal Palace is for other than a safe place for the developer’s chairman, Ni Zhaoxing (net worth $1.3 billion as of October 2013, according to Forbes), to park his wealth. Nothing strange there, you might argue, and nothing wrong, either. London is built upon foreign investment.

What is wrong is planning a project of this scale in a corner of London where it will have a destabilising impact without any clear idea of what is being provided. The shortlist is encouraging and, yes, it will look great on Google Earth, but that’s not a good enough reason to break ground. The selection panel - Hank Dittmar, Stephen Hodder, Peter Murray et al - all people concerned with ground-up urban design, must surely be wondering what they are waving through.

Deserving of honour

RIBA has done a great thing in awarding Joseph Rykwert (pictured) its coveted Gold Medal. Few recipients have been as deserving - nor as controversial. As Rykwert said of other medallists this week in his lecture at the RIBA: ‘Much of my work has been spent criticising the work of my predecessors.’ To the architect-turned-teacher-turned critic, this was, to say the least, ‘gratifying’.

So, well done RIBA, this was a big, clever move, although the scarcity of women recipients in the fellowships this year wasn’t. Two honorary fellows out of nine (Irena Murray and Susie Sainsbury) and half an international fellowship out of eight (for Billie Tsien, shared with partner Tod Williams) isn’t good enough. As Rykwert said, ‘Architecture can never escape being political.’ With that in mind, RIBA, what kind of message does your fellowship list transmit?


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