Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The Ozymandias Complex

The dusty fata morgana of the winter garden, the dreary perspective of the train station.

- Benjamin, Arcades Project.

People have recently been talking about Victorian fantasy architecture. Coincidentally, we went down recently to have a look at Crystal Palace Park, down in South London, such being the opportunities presented to a euphemistically-titled ‘freelancer’. It was perhaps the first day of the year with weather that could reasonably be described as pleasant, after what has been a very cold and awfully dark winter, much more so than most. We took some photographs, but the sights that we were presented with were somewhat problematic, full of cliché. Whereas some journeys one might go on present an opportunity to evaluate a space in a creative fashion, this particular journey was different, it felt pre-aestheticised. This does not mean, however, that we didn’t find objects and situations of interest on our journey.

It should be noted that we arrived at a distinctly picturesque crepuscular hour.

The first thing that strikes you is a certain sense of Paris about the park, what with the dominance of this industrial structure, a television tower built in 1956. A diminutive Eiffel, visible from those rare places in London where the distant comes into view, the tower is a most significant South London object; it’s the second tallest structure in London, and is likely to remain so, as more and more tower projects are cancelled.

Although the television mast may make allusions to Paris, there was another strange connection to be made. The symmetry, scale and the grandeur of the remains was recognisably the same as that one finds at the Parade Grounds of Nuremburg, Albert Speer’s gigantic setting for Nazi festival, where the Cathedral of Light was enacted. There is a reading to be made where the Cathedral of Light can be seen as the end point of Iron and Glass, perhaps the end point of Architecture, the completely immaterialised place of communal-event making, taken to its grandiose, sublime and intangible limit. Any further along that line of reasoning and you’d have to see Fatima as architecture.
Here, as at Nuremburg, there is also that faintly unpleasant sense of the space constructed with ruin in mind, the guilty pleasures of gloopy Romanticism. The picturesque spectacle of human endeavour fighting its valiant, doomed battle against nature always seems to fit the particular sentimentalism of Victorian architecture all too snugly. It is death made safe, but it is also a delusion of grandeur, of upstarts believing they are worthy of similar cultural duration as that of antiquity, with just as much culture to bequeath as Athens or Rome ever had.

This was once the main transept, which only existed as Paxton decided to incorporate some elm trees that had originally stood in Hyde Park. It’s actually not at all clear where exactly the Crystal Palace stood in the park, I have seen but one map, a panoramic one at that, which shows the palace in situ. It seems to have stood just inside the park, to the immediate north of where the Albert Hall and Royal College of Art now stand.

The Nave; looking north.

The Choir; looking south.
The use of church terminology is entirely apt, for the building was both in plan and in section an ecclesiastical structure, with a vaulted Nave flanked by buttressed aisles. And this is where one should look to the theorising of someone like Viollet-le-Duc: away from the puritanical arguments of a Pugin, moralising the pointed arch as a way out of eclecticism, Viollet-le-Duc (who entertainingly gets a very hard time from Proust in the Recherche) recognised the gothic as a structural method, the functionalism of its day. In fact, perhaps the gothic builders were the hi-tech architects of the day, wedding a fetishised structural expressionism to a theological message: 500 years ago, the church, in the last century the gods of Capital.

There are a few forlorn sculptures still standing around, actually rather nasty reminders of Imperial attitudes; this chap appears to represent 'the Arab'. See the Albert Memorial for better kept examples.

And there are still a number of sphinxes dotted around. This is another reading of the Crystal Palace, one of the most obvious, that of the vile backslapping of an Imperial power. But despite all of the vulgar accoutrements, the exhibition palace as a typology has a rather mournful pedigree. Whereas the train stations, department stores, libraries museums and greenhouses who took on the new industrial methods of building often survived and are still to be found, although their dreamy qualities are more often than not tempered by the being hidden behind a vulgar Victorian edifice, the exhibition palaces, so impressive at first, were usually disastrous failures given just a short while. Due to the popularity of these temporary structures they were often purchased for permanent use, the Crystal Palace being an obvious example. Often they were then recommended for utilisation as locations for the recreation, stimulation and perhaps improvement of the common man, at which point they became almost worthless financially. The Crystal Palace lurched from crisis to crisis, as did many of the others palaces in London such as the Alexandria Palace or the Albert Palace (which survived less than a decade, about which more one day). The attempts to make plateaus out of the singular events of the exhibitions became mournful failures, long before they had any chance to become ruins.

Here we look down the entire length of the Palace. At the time of our visit, there were a few groups of school children hanging around, a number of young lovers’ picnics, dog walkers, footballers and kite flyers. There is a campaign to have the Crystal Palace rebuilt, an endearingly loopy idea. There have also been attempts, even planning applications made, to use the space for all kinds of commercial ventures; vulgar proposals for cinema complexes and the like. Thankfully that will, in our current predicament, be off the agenda for at least the time being. Surely this blankness is the most telling and appropriate use of the space, a grassy terrace dug into the hillside, flanked by crumbling fragments? It really isn’t quite a ruin, although of course one can have one’s ruinophilic fun here:

For there are indeed points where the ivy grows, where the stones decay and collapse, where all things pass.

Where nature takes over, making things secret, occluding the logic that we try to bring to space, asserting its overwhelming power.

But really, what is that worth? One can certainly take a kind of pleasure from sights like these, but what can they actually do for us? I’ve written before about ruins, as many have, but at the time I was trying to find out if one could abstract the code of the ruin, if one could achieve the same effects without the wide-eyed gooey quasi-Romanticism that has come to surround it. I saw the ruin as some kind of supplement – as long as there are ruins somewhere that one can visit for a picnic, and spend a little time marvelling at transience, without it being too traumatic, it means that the simulation of permanence can run more smoothly elsewhere. But now of course, we have ruins everywhere, empty houses, unfinished buildings, towers and monuments, ‘on hold’, shells, ghost buildings; and they’re not helping at all. They are not failures that can be identified with, they cannot be reclaimed.

These are the only fragments of the Crystal Palace that have been left, a series of column bases.
I think that the emptiness of the space is perhaps its most interesting feature. There is a sense here of having missed something – of an occasion that has definitively passed. This sense is not new, one only has to think of the people who used the Roman Forum as space for their lime kilns in the medieval period, but there is something scintillatingly traumatic to our psyche about the vast under-utilised space, created for social gatherings that will never fill it, that resembles the attraction that the ruin had for the 19th century. Despite anything one might say about postmodernism, it is the case that our societies are still predicated around forward linearity, growth. This is an outlandish statement, yes, but capitalism, as everybody knows by now, requires a constant supply of new material, and if it has to overcode a social space, then it does. Every organisation that has to function in this paradigm has to perform progress (conservatism usually only exists to secure more favourable dynamics of accumulation); this is why we still cannot really fathom the idea of a decaying body, a finite, weak planet, or perhaps, at the far end of the scale, the knowledge of extinction. This is another argument, however.
All I suggest is that the under-utilised space, the space created for an event that fails to achieve its potential, the space of a gathering that can never happen again, is perhaps a particularly traumatic space for us now.

The park is also home to some rather remarkable modernist artefacts. This little brute is genuinely ruined.

And a wonderfully basic set of benches, wood shuttered, wrapped in a silvery bit of timber, with plastic moulded seats. Gently heroic.

Joseph Paxton.
There are many possible contestations over the legacy of the crystal palace. Can we think of it as the first ‘modern’ building? It would seem that many do just that. What is Paxton’s legacy? The hi-tech types would put him alongside Brunel as a genius of the new engineering mindset, of the egalitarian technocracy of functionalism. The modular construction of the palace, the opportune use of the latest technology, the refinement of design, the flexibility of construction, or the loose grid to be filled with any old programme, these are all shibboleths of hi-tech. But then, the Crystal Palace was deeply inspired by plants, there is an anecdote about the origin of the façade as having come from Paxton studying a lily; this biomorphic engineering would make him a proto-parametric bore. In a way it doesn’t matter, because the significance of the building is tied to far more than just its success as a piece of structure, and Paxton had very little to do with that.

In a way, my argument is that there is a trace of something in cultural objects that mark certain transitions between a Romantic view of the world and a Modern one. There is a trauma there, a glimpse of something, if not progress, then at least potential. As Benjamin says;
This perplexity derived in part from the superabundance of technical processes and new materials that had suddenly become available. The effort to assimilate them more thoroughly led to mistakes and failures. On the other hand, these vain attempts are the most authentic proof that technological production, at the beginning, was in the grip of dreams. (Not architecture alone but all technology is, at certain stages, evidence of a collective dream.)

Thwarted dreams, as always. What can we do?

This is a gem of a building; The Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, designed and built by Leslie Martin at the LCC between 1954-64, although now with an uncertain future.
Here we have an alternative modernity; this is High Modernism, where structure is fetishised, but in a bespoke, mannered way, represented here by the pre-stressed concrete frame, an expensive and by no means easy technique to use. As far as functionalist rhetoric goes this is a fail, not a true functionalism, but has there ever been a true functionalism, except perhaps that of the shed or the silo. This is of course a very large question, look at Lloyds of London, which screams engineering, calls out functionalism, (it even has a direct reference to the Crystal Palace at the top of its giant room), and yet is utterly bespoke.
Nevertheless, this whole complex seemed to be in very good shape, considering.

This is for Owen, who is worryingly veering towards an emancipatory theory of the cantilever. Note that beneath the roof we essentially have a small fragment of Corbu’s Palace of the Soviets.

That glorious axial emptiness again.

And then some wonderful quotidian modernity, reaching in and out of the trees, a forgotten future, complete with lime stalactites.

And of course the real reason to visit the park is to see the dinosaurs. Grade I listed, don’t you know. It is interesting to note to what extent contemporary palaeontology now accepts the level to which dinosaurs were feathered. They should digitally remaster Jurassic Park to show what velociraptors actually looked like: 1 metre high chickens.



GROVELLING UPDATE: Anyone with the slightest bit of inside knowledge would have been able to tell me that all the photographs I took of the absent interior were actually taken from the space in front of the palace, which stood 50 meters west of where I thought it did. What an imbecile; I now have to go back to South London.


Conrad H. Roth said...

Your final photo is remarkably similar to one I took last week in York.

How do you feel about Alexandra Palace, meanwhile?

owen hatherley said...

Why did you not take me on this walk?!

Also, re: my emancipatory theory of the cantilever - just you wait until I write my post on stadium design...

Charles Holland said...


There was a race track there too was there not? I think it closed in the early '70's but some sections of it survive?

Murphy said...

Conrad: that's quite something! I think coots are excellent beasts, if a little bit too aggressive with one another.

Alexandria Palace is not something I am an expert on, although one has to love the immediate rebuilding after the fire, oh how Victorian... It's one of the best examples of a 'Palace for the People' being a financial drain, however. I believe it's even now under threat of commercial redevelopment?

Charles: I didn't know when I went there but yes, there used to be a grand prix track there, which might partly explain the sense of expanse, and the Nuremburg connection. The track is mostly still there and is awfully wide, much like the Große Straße at the parade grounds.

And, bloody hell, a strange coincidence! Looking up the link above I found this out: