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Second coming

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review - Crystal Palace at Sydenham At Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London SE21, until 18 April

We could have done with this show a few years ago, before the Millennium Dome was planned and built. Like the Dome, the Crystal Palace was constructed in London for a high-profile exhibition. But when that exhibition closed, the Crystal Palace remained viable for decades as a visitor attraction.

In the case of the Crystal Palace, the innovative techniques used in its construction - its speedy assembly from prefabricated parts - meant the building could be dismantled if necessary, and re-erected at a location more suited to long-term occupation. Not that this was the novel approach of a full-time architect; Joseph Paxton was a gardener, and his plan for a giant greenhouse (the cousin of those at Chatsworth and Kew) is probably the most famous of the architectural designs that begin as scribbles on napkins and menus - or in this case a doodle on blotting paper during a meeting.

It seems unlikely, though, that Paxton had originally anticipated the need for the palace to move. What was required for the Great Exhibition of 1851 was simply a structure that would be strong and easy to build - a tall enough order, going by some of the rejected designs from better-known architects and engineers. One competition entry featured a dome that would have outdone that of St Peter's, requiring 17 million bricks.

Paxton had wanted the Crystal Palace to remain in Hyde Park as a winter garden after the exhibition closed, but the residents of Kensington were determined not to have such a crowd-puller in their back garden.

After nearly being sold and transported to New York, the palace was eventually bought by a group of railway proprietors, who wanted people to take their trains, and who positioned the building accordingly. A site was found south of the river at Penge Place, Sydenham, where the palace was reconstructed. It was to dominate the south London skyline until it burned down more than 80 years later.

The second Crystal Palace was made from the materials of the original and with the same modular design (what Ruskin called an 'endless perspective of black skeleton and blinding square') but considerably expanded, with much greater cubic capacity and double the glass. It exerted a profound influence on succeeding generations of architects, not only through its form (Le Corbusier called its vaults 'the heralds of the new age'), but also through its contents.

Among the displays in the rebuilt palace were the Fine Arts Courts, which housed huge reconstructions of buildings of past ages and cultures. These were controversially painted in bright colours, in line with (though sometimes exceeding) the latest archaeological evidence. The brainchild of architects Matthew Digby Wyatt and Owen Jones, they were intended to teach colour harmony and the 'grammar of ornament', as part of a general effort to improve public taste. And new designers and architects were taught to see the development of architectural style as a linear progression, with a moral lesson for the British in the fall of past empires (generally through the 'destructive agency of a sensual and degraded luxury').

But the palace itself was not to last. The Dulwich exhibition includes some lumps of lead and glass that were recovered after the building was destroyed by fire in November 1936, with a Pathe newsreel playing on a nearby monitor, capturing the moments of its collapse. There can have been few sadder sights in architectural history.

Matt Shinn is a writer and editor in London.

Published to accompany the exhibition, J R Piggott's Palace of the People (Hurst & Co, £22.50) is a detailed account of the Crystal Palace's second life at Sydenham, and it includes many illustrations

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