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Britain's Crystal Palace could rise again

A rendering of the Crystal Palace, as imagined by Ni Zhaoxing from Shanghai.

The terrace, relic of the old Crystal Palace, which was destroyed by fire in 1936.

John Payne, head of the Crystal Palace Community Association, standing on the steps leading up to the Crystal Palace terrace.

Audrey Hammond,local resident and opponent of the reconstruction plan. “What is most valuable to thousands of Londoners who live in this very built-up area is this open space, the trees, the plants, the animals the birds. This is the most wonderful open space, a green lung for Londoners.”

A Chinese property developer has unveiled plans for a $800 million building project in south London. Ni Zhaoxing from Shanghai wants to recreate the Crystal Palace, the Victorian cast iron and plate glass masterpiece which burned down in the 1930s.

But Mr. Ni’s plan to rebuild it is getting mixed reviews.

“Mr. Ni has come forward with a brilliant, original and simple vision,” declares the mayor of London, Boris Johnson. The mayor welcomes the idea of building a replica of the huge structure, high on a hill in the same London park where it stood for more than 80 years.

“South London will once again acquire a world class, cultural attraction,” Johnson claims. “The park will be reborn. And the Palace will rise again.”

Design and culture critic Stephen Bayley takes a much more jaundiced view. He argues that the new building will be a pale reflection of the original, which was built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, an international showcase for technological innovation. Since Britain dominated the global economy at that time, says Bayley, the old Palace embodied British imperial pride.

“It was such a monument to confidence and vigor and a refusal to compromise,” he points out. "It was Britain having the nerve, indeed audacity to say: ‘Look! We actually own the planet.’”

Bayley, who doesn’t like architectural replicas, predicts that the new Palace will just be “muddled kitsch.” Like other architectural fakes in China -- the Champs Elysees with a stunted Eiffel Tower in Hangzhou, or Thames Town in Shanghai.

Residents who live near the Crystal Palace Park are nervous about the planned development. “Who knows what this ‘Victorian reconstruction’ could turn into?” wonders John Payne, head of the Crystal Palace Community Association. “It could become a huge pop concert venue, a shopping mall, a big casino. The list is endless.”

The possible re-creation of one of the architectural glories of the Victorian era does not impress Audrey Hammond, a founding member of the Community Association.

“What is most valuable to thousands of Londoners who live in this very built-up area,” she says, “is this open space, the trees, the plants, the animals the birds. This is the most wonderful open space, a green lung for Londoners. And this is what we need. Not more development, more building, more money-making schemes to take away our precious bit of open space.”

The Chinese developer, Mr. Ni, is pressing ahead with his plan for what he says will be a “jewel in Britain’s crown” and which will pay its way as a concert, convention and exhibition center -- with a six-star hotel thrown in.

Mr. Ni has some powerful support. His project is not only backed by the mayor of London but also by Stephen Carr, head of the local council, which owns the Crystal Palace site.

“ It’s clear to me that this is a great opportunity for the area,” says Carr. “And I and the council certainly wouldn’t be behind it if we didn’t think it was going to have huge benefit for the local people.”

Local residents have a year to register their objections. If the plan gets the go-ahead, construction will begin in the winter of 2015.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

The terrace, relic of the old Crystal Palace, which was destroyed by fire in 1936.

John Payne, head of the Crystal Palace Community Association, standing on the steps leading up to the Crystal Palace terrace.

Audrey Hammond,local resident and opponent of the reconstruction plan. “What is most valuable to thousands of Londoners who live in this very built-up area is this open space, the trees, the plants, the animals the birds. This is the most wonderful open space, a green lung for Londoners.”

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