Local residents, who were excluded from a media conference in Crystal Palace Park, pressed their ears to the windows so that they could hear what was being said. On 3 Oct 2013, London Mayor Boris Johnson and Chinese billionaire Mr Ni Zhaoxing announced plans by Mr Ni’s ZhongRong Group to resurrect the Victorian Crystal Palace. News of the scheme has for some time been leaking disorderly via the media – a PR faux pas without question.
Local authorities explained that the ‘radio silence’ was outside their control because they were bound by confidentiality agreements at the behest of Mr Ni. Some say that the absence of proper public consultation prior to such a bold announcement means that the proponents of the scheme shot themselves in the foot with the starter pistol – but it seems on this occasion they may have redeemed themselves for the mere price of sharing croissants and coffee with local residents.
In reality, the proposals are still at such a nascent stage that none of this matters.
The real question now is whether this £500m project should see the light of day? …and if it shouldn’t, what should?
[Update 8 Oct 2013: Thank you for your comments so far!
One reader said “[this article] clearly defines the parameters of the ensuing debate“ and another “If you read just one thing on the proposal, it should be this piece.“ – I’m flattered!
Someone else said “some good points here… apart from the suggestion ‘resistance is futile’…“ – a healthy discourse requires differing opinion as much as accord.
Let the debate begin – more comments please!]
(Don’t have time for the full article? Click here to read the summary at the end)
1. It could be a ‘Guggenheim moment’ for Crystal Palace
This statement was the reaction of my business partner and fellow South East London resident, making reference to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao designed by signature architect Frank Gehry. It is true that Gehry’s building forcefully reasserted Bilbao on the map, but we need to delve deeper to understand the causality of why this radical building is a success.
Urban regeneration is a complex process and the building was a product of meticulous planning over decades, as I explain in this article. Attributing the socio-economic progress of Bilbao to ‘The Guggenheim effect’ is a dangerously simplistic reduction, says Arantxa Rodríguez. She is right.
The lesson here is that without comprehensive planning and foresight, any new building on the scale and grandeur of the Crystal Palace will at best be a white elephant and at worst destroy the social fabric of the area.
2. Resistance is futile – and in this instance not wise
One of the most iconic images of the 1989 student protests in Tienanmen Square was when ‘Tank Man’ single-handedly stopped a column of military hardware. The video above-left shows that yes, the young student did momentarily stop the Chinese army before dissolving anonymously back into the crowds.
But, notwithstanding the colossal bravery and cult status achieved, the net effect on the day was zero because after he left, the tanks continued on their intended path.
Listening to Mayor Johnson and Mr Ni talking about their plans – and seeing the political, commercial and reputational machinery already in play – it is plain to see that attempting to block this momentum would be more like standing in the path of a runaway train, let alone a tank.
Local residents who do want to shape the outcome, after calculating the odds of all options on the table, will no doubt conclude that the only reasonable course of action is to engage wholeheartedly with an open mind and at the earliest possible opportunity.
Expect the local community as well as business folk and politicians to all bargain as hard as they can to get the best deal possible, both collectively and respectively – and so they should.
This is how local residents will best serve their interests.
3. Glory, jewels and an ‘Art Palace’
Mr Ni says that he wants to create a world class cultural attraction – an ‘Art Palace’ for South East London and a jewel in the crown for the UK and the world. He wants to resurrect the former glory of the palace so that he can pass something to future generations.
These are great ambitions indeed! Certainly worthy of matching those of Prince Albert and Joseph Paxton when conceiving the original Crystal Palace of 1851. Mr Ni should be commended.
The Victorians – no doubt equally intoxicated then by empire building as others are today – had the vision to create something new and forward thinking. The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 was charged with “increasing the means of industrial education and extending the influence of science and art upon productive industry”.
So, what would Prince Albert’s original Commission do if they had the same task today?
The legacy of the Crystal Palace lies not in its literal design, dimensions or choice of materials – it’s legacy and the genius loci that remains to this day is the ability for the memory of the Crystal Palace to inspire – Mr Ni included. Then as a building and now as an idea, it remains a beacon of hope, ingenuity, innovation and cutting edge technology.
The rebuilt Globe Theater in London is arguably a successful reproduction because it was done contemporaneously with people still enjoying Shakespeare’s plays, and it was rebuilt to serve its original function. The building helps people understand the social context of Shakespeare’s time, the society he wrote about and the audience he wrote for.
But reproducing a masterpiece does not automatically guarantee success – it does however carry a risk of failure. If the circumstances that shaped the original have changed, for example as much as in the case of the Crystal Palace area and the British Empire, then a reproduced Crystal Palace building may amount to no more than a pastiche replica and superficial Victoriana.
Mr Ni, as an art collector, surely knows the difference between an original and a fake?
What will Mr Ni’s ‘Art Palace’ look like?
In architecture, as in art, there is a market for trinkets and tat, but it is not a glamorous one – certainly not the ‘glory’ that Mr Ni says he aspires to. We should remind ourselves that the 1980s addition to the Crystal Palace Station, also built in the style of the original palace, was demolished in 2012 without complaint.
The ZhongRong Group has appointed Arup to assist them with the planning and design of the building. Jerome Frost OBE, Project Director for Arup, says that the new Crystal Palace will be built to the original proportions but that it won’t be an exact replica because of modern construction techniques and regulations.
The real deal
Below are artist impressions by the ZhongRong Group of their proposals alongside photos of INFOMART – an office building and data centre in Texas, built 1985 in the style of the original Crystal Palace, also using modern construction techniques and abiding by the building regulations of the day.
|ZhongRong proposal||INFOMART (Texas)|
One opinion on the design proposal is of that Sam Jacob (practising architect and professor of architecture in the USA and UK) who argues in De Zeen Magazine that:
“Buildings exist in a time as well as space” and that a replica Crystal Palace will be “zombie architecture… its construction, like the Infomart in its cheap cartooning of history, would only make our sense of loss greater.”
The GLA will appoint an advisory board to oversee the design quality of the new building. The board will be chaired by the Mayor of London and include Hank Dittmar (special advisor to HRH the Prince of Wales), Sir Tim Smit (co-founder of the Eden Project and Executive Chairman of Eden Regeneration), and Sir John Sorrell CBE (Chairman of the London Design Festival and UKTI Business Ambassador).
Are these 3 wise men up to the job? I don’t know. First I will need to see if they can convince a world renowned British architect like Lord Rogers or Sir Norman Foster to take part in recreating someone else’s design – even if it is one of the esteemed Sir Joseph Paxton.
More importantly, representatives of the local community are conspicuously absent from the board advising the Mayor.
4. Colour of money – is Mr Ni delirious or serious?
In the press conference, Mayor Johnson defended Mr Ni’s proposed private investment, saying “Let’s not forget that if it wasn’t for American investors funded by a German bank there wouldn’t be an Underground”. But the Victorians, in addition to being great industrialists, were also great philanthropists.
The Mayor and Mr Ni should remind themselves that much of what people in Britain and elsewhere now take for granted required massive philanthropy alongside enthusiastic industrialism to achieve – watch again the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics by Danny Boyle.
This concept of blending the ways of commerce and benevolence is having a resurgence – most recently under the term ‘PhilanthroCapitalism‘ – coined by two British economists in their book of the same name (coincidentally they are also two of Crystal Palace Football Club’s most ardent supporters!).
PhilanthroCapitalism is advocated by leaders such as Bill Clinton and practised by the likes of Warren Buffet because it effectively leverages both markets and civil society, integrating business and philanthropy in a way that is more effective at creating prosperity whist at the same time alleviating social distress.
Social justice and legacy
Consider also the sense of social justice that guided George Peabody in creating his housing estates. Or the healthcare provision conceived of by John Radcliffe (pre-Victorian era) who established the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, which became renowned as a centre of excellence and medical innovation, and that much later became part of the inspiration for the NHS.
What will Mr Ni’s legacy be 100 years after rebuilding the Crystal Palace? The ZhongRong Group says that it will take a long term view about the commercial viability of the scheme and will commit to funding much needed work to regenerate the Grade II* listed Crystal Palace Park.
Mr Ni’s says that he wants to “restore the park to its former glory”. It is also understood that the group is considering making contributions to the running costs of the park for 10 years, paid for out of revenues generated from the new palace.
All potentially welcome news.
Show us the money
Although details are scarce, the deal offered by the ZhongRong Group is certainly enticing, if not also appearing too good to be true. To show that ZhongRong is serious in its intentions, and that we in return should take them seriously, I suggest that ZhongRong is required to pay immediately into an escrow account (held by lawyers in trust and monies released according to predetermined triggers) a sum of money that is equivalent to the estimated costs of regenerating the surrounding park lands as per the ZhongRong proposal documents.
Furthermore, if the ZhongRong/GLA team can placate local residents with croissants and coffee at the press conference, imagine the effect of a charm offensive giving money directly (without strings attached) to help local community action groups.
Would these groups take it? Should they take it? I don’t know, but such an offer would show that Mr Ni is genuinely committed to this project and that he takes the local community seriously enough to help it.
The local community deserves its pound of flesh (…and turf)
No details are currently available for the terms upon which a land deal will be structured. The land is currently owned by the Bromley Council and designated as Metropolitan Open Land (MOL). See Bromley Council’s Unitary Development Plan (UDP) for a map of the MOL, plus the GLA’s definition of MOL and the Mayor’s role in protecting it – there is “a presumption against inappropriate development of MOL and give the same level of protection as the green belt”.
In the context of the above, the obvious question to Bromley Council, the Mayor of London and Parliament is:
“Please clarify what criteria will be used in assessing the appropriateness of the ZhongRong proposed development, and explain the rationale and legal arguments for amending the UDP and/or the 1990 Act if necessary?”
I suspect that instead of purchasing the land outright, the ZhongRong Group will be offered a long lease for the land upon which they will build. But this means that the land may effectively be in private hands and outside of public or community control for a very long time.
Due to the obvious sensitivities of this potential situation – private ownership or control of Crystal Palace Park has been the single most caustic issue of any redevelopment plans.
I propose therefore that if ZhongRong is permitted to construct a building, that the building is put into a holding vehicle separate from the ZhongRong Group, and that the ZhongRong Group is offered a lease on the building – not the land – with strictly defined terms and break clauses.
If the ZhongRong Group cannot maintain their end of the deal, then a break clause should automatically be triggered that revokes the lease, allowing for an alternative use or occupier to be found by the holding vehicle.
A crown in the jewel?
How could this holding vehicle be structured? We need look no further than the original Crystal Palace Company established under the Royal Charters of 1852 and 1854. The Charter of 1854 states that the Company was responsible for relocating the building from Hyde Park and maintaining it “for the illustration of the Arts Sciences and Manufactures and the cultivation of a refined taste amongst all the classes of the community” [emphasis added].
Maybe the recently new friend of the Friends of Crystal Palace Subway, HRH the Duke of Gloucester, could help in reinstating the former Crystal Palace Company under Royal Charter?
A reinstated Crystal Palace Company would now as then be tasked with the custodianship of the Crystal Palace building and surrounds – responsible for the quality of its design, construction and function, making sure it stays a ‘jewel in the crown’ and that it remains of benefit to all classes of the community. Additionally, a reinstated company under Royal Charter would, working alongside the The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, be tasked with safeguarding the heritage of the original Crystal Palace and protecting its legacy for generations to come.
5. A ‘People’s Palace’
British Prime Minster David Cameron believes that we can use “the power of finance to tackle the most difficult social problems”. He said so in his G8 speech mapping out what he want’s the UK to achieve in its 12 month G8 presidency.
He is referring to a form of finance known as social impact investing – an investment approach that has the explicit expectation of achieving social and/or environmental gain as a ‘social return’ alongside and in addition to an expected financial return. Read more about its definition here (my company’s website).
Cameron has long stopped formally promoting his idea of Big Society, but he still believes in the concept. With this policy, he was trying to empower communities to be more self sufficient in making their lives better. Nothing new here, many entrepreneurial people have been doing this by setting up what is known as a social enterprise – “a business that trades for a social and/or environmental purpose” (definition from the website of Social Enterprise UK).
Showcasing UK preeminence
The UK is now regarded as a preeminent authority in social impact investment and social enterprise. This is evidenced by the advent in Britain of the Social Impact Bond that is being enthusiastically replicated globally, and that the US based Global Impact Investing Networked (backed by the Rockefeller Foundation) has decided to hold its first ever Investor Forum in London later this month to debate these new trends.
Getting back to one of my earlier questions: what would Prince Albert’s Commission do today? What would the ‘Great Exhibition’ of today be?
It could be many things – but I think it should be showcasing to the world how the UK is now leading the way in shaping markets and finance as a deliberate force for good, so that doing good is not just an accidental byproduct.
Prime Minster Cameron, in his role as current G8 president, says that he is prepared to fight for building a bigger and stronger society. He says that he wants to show how “social investment can be a great force for social change on the planet… that power is in our hands.”
Well, come on Dave – put your political capital where your mouth is. Let the ‘Great Exhibition of 2013’ (i.e. The UK’s G8 presidency) showcase how the UK is developing ways to use business and finance to help solve some of the world’s most intractable problems of our time. We all know that governments don’t have all the resources to do it, and neither does the world of philanthropy.
A beacon of hope
If conceived with the right vision, I think a new Crystal Palace may actually be able to match the aspirations of the original Royal Commission. It may actually be possible for Mr Ni to realise his ambition of creating a jewel in the crown for the Britain and the world – but it may not look like the image Mr Ni has in his mind.
A new Crystal Palace could again be a beacon of hope, a showcase of innovation and a celebration of ingenuity to inspire generations to come. It seems to me that this is exactly the spirit of the original challenge set by Prince Albert. But the only way of doing this would be for the whole project to be an exemplar of social impact investment and social enterprise itself – for Mr Ni this means going back to the drawing board.
If Mr Ni was sincere in what he said at the press conference, then he needs to listen to his own words to realise that there is another route forwards. A new Crystal Palace will need to be a People’s Palace – one that empowers the very people who on 3 Oct 2013 were kept outside the tent. A People’s Palace could also inspire people around the world to make their communities stronger and more cohesive.
Could Messrs Ni, Johnson and Cameron imagine leaving behind this sort of legacy?
6. How to do it
As custodians and beneficiaries of the park, we have a duty to proactively influence a process that, if it runs its course, will shape our park for generations to come. We should listen, engage, challenge and keep an open mind.
Ask the right questions
There isn’t yet enough information about the ZhongRong proposal for anyone to have an informed position. Knee-jerk reactions won’t help. What we need to know in detail is the following:
- What will it look like?
- What will go in it?
- How will it affect the amenity of the park for existing users and local residents?
- What effect will it have on existing infrastructure and the local environment?
- Will it help create a more cohesive or more fragmented local community?
- How will it address the development needs of the local community? [via CP Local Facebook Group]
An innovative Anglo-Sino partnership and joint venture between big business and little people
Why would Mr Ni go for this wacky idea of a People’s Palace? Well, to be honest he may not and he doesn’t need to. But this is a very challenging project and his advisors, if they know anything about the Crystal Palace community, should already be informing him that a complex consultation process is unavoidable.
Previous development proposals in the area serve as a useful precedent for what is likely – a lengthy consultation process. Not least also because of the technical challenges of proposing a construction of this scale on Metropolitan Open Land, building on Grade II* listed parkland, and the requirement to overturn an act of parliament that prohibits development on parts of the site.
Socio-economic stresses in China
Mr Ni is also probably very aware of the growing discontent among China’s swelling middle class. Leading even China’s political elite at Central Party School to “talk of the unthinkable: the collapse of Chinese communism”, so says Jamil Anderlini in this article in the Financial Times. The article continues, quoting David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University:
“…a powerful indicator of just how little faith exists in the system is the number of wealthy Chinese elites with offshore assets and property, offshore bank accounts and children studying in western universities.”
” ‘These individuals are ready to bolt at a moment’s notice, as soon as the political system is in its endgame – but they will remain in China in order to extract every last Renminbi possible until that time,’ he says. ‘Their hedging behaviour speaks volumes about the fragile stability of the party state in China today.’ “
Mr Ni, one of China’s wealthiest men, is openly proud that his daughters are studying in the UK – he made that point in his speech at the press conference. From what we know about him, he seems to fit Shambaugh’s description, although he may not agree with the sentiments therein.
A pleasant surprise for all – maybe
If Mr Ni has the desire to leave behind a positive legacy in China as well as globally, then he may (or at least he should) also be interested in understanding more about ways to harness the bottom-up power of local communities. The lessons he will garner in building a People’s Palace in the UK could actually be exported to China to help mitigate or counter emerging social stresses – if indeed the Chinese single party state model is straining, as Shambaugh says above.
If Mr Ni doesn’t like the concept of building a People’s Palace or the idea of PhilanthroCapitalism (see definition above), then in my opinion he is the wrong man to attempt rebuilding the Crystal Palace. However, if he understands the value of these concepts, then it is potentially win-win-win for the Crystal Palace community, China and the UK – because:
- We get money to fix and run our park,
- China (via Mr Ni) gets an understanding that could help alleviate emerging social stresses domestically, and
- The UK is able to showcase its strengths in innovation and reposition itself as exporter of cutting-edge know-how.
Think outside the box – literally
In 2003 Wilkinson Eyre Architects designed this innovative concept for a structure on the site of the former Crystal Palace. It is certainly not of the scale envisioned by Mr Ni in rebuilding the palace, but it is a good modern interpretation that successfully avoids pastiche. It also very sensitively recognises that today, unlike when the original palace was built, the scarce commodity is urban parkland and not buildings.
By designing a building that floats above the ground the architects actually minimise the footprint and allow people to enjoy the amenity of the park beneath it as much as the building itself.
To be clear – I’m not a proactive advocate of building on the site at all, but if something must be built then I would much rather it was in the direction of the Wilkinson Eyre concept than the INFOMART in Texas.
Imagine the Wilkinson Eyre design with the following attributes:
- a larger scale structure to accommodate the space requirements of the ZhongRong project
- a subterranean car park hidden from view and covered with grass
- a green roof garden on top of the building – essentially creating a new park in the sky
- Enable a way for the ZhongRong proposal to go ahead
- Remove unsightly car parking and asphalt from the Crystal Palace Park, increasing in real terms the amount of grass in the park and delivering much needed car parking for local High Street traders
- Local residents would be able to walk under the building on the ridge site, currently this area is fenced off from public access, so in practical terms this would increase the space and amenity value of the park
- A public roof garden that could be accessed free of charge would add new and additional area to the park that currently doesn’t exist
- A public roof garden would serve as a look-out platform from which to enjoy views across London and be an attraction that would draw people to Crystal Palace
- Messrs Ni, Johnson and Cameron might secure a legacy of being involved in a creation that would have the potential to be a jewel in the crown of the local community, London, the UK and the world.
Food for thought…
All opinions herein are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organisations the writer is involved with. The writer is a local Crystal Palace resident; Chair of the Friends of the Crystal Palace Subway; founder and Chief Executive of Engaged Investment; social impact investment advisor to the Euclid Network; Fellow of the Finance Innovation Lab; an UnLtd award winner for social innovators; member of the Groupe d’Experts de la Commission sur l’Entrepreneuriat Social (GECES), appointed by the European Commission to advise on its Social Business Initiative. Formerly a founding principal of urban regeneration business Entity Partnerships.
[added 8 Oct 2013]
This article was written as a discussion piece to provoke debate and help shape thinking on the ZhongRong Group’s proposal to resurrect the Crystal Palace (My article is longer than anticipate so I added this summary):
- The process needs to be open and transparent – local residents should be more deeply engaged in a sincere spirit of joint venture, not just superficially consulted with.
- Contextually, this must be seen as a holistic regeneration scheme – a proposal of this scale cannot be rushed, it needs a comprehensive area-wide development plan to ensure all-round success.
- Local residents should withhold judgement until the facts are clear, and engage open mindedly to shape the best possible outcomes for the community.
- We should remind ourselves of Prince Albert’s original vision in conceiving the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 (which spawned the original Crystal Palace).
- Design quality should be paramount – architectural integrity transcending pastiche.
- The motive of money is as important as the quantum or what it is spent on.
- Included are practical suggestions for structuring a commercial and social contract with the ZhongRong Group (or any other developer for that matter).
- Would it be desirable to reinstate the original Crystal Palace Company under Royal Charter? It could be tasked with the custodianship of the asset – responsible for the quality of its design, construction and function, as well as safeguarding the heritage of the Crystal Palace building and protecting its legacy for generations to come.
- If anything is built, the vision should be to create a ‘People’s Palace’ that showcases the UK’s preeminence in social enterprise and social impact investing – currently this is a G8 priority theme being promoted PM David Cameron.
- We should aspire to creating a beacon of hope – an exemplar that blends philanthropy, charity, business, investment and capital markets to demonstrate how collectively these means can help solve some of the most intractable social problems.
- It is important to understand the relevance of trends in China on this proposal – notably an elite who increasingly ‘off shore’ their wealth to hedge against widening social discontent within the Chinese middle class, and who fear that socio-economic tensions may disrupt the stability of China’s communist state model.
- We should think outside the box if we want a win-win-win for all. It may be possible to simultaneously:
- Alleviate the current fiscal headache of public authorities,
- Offer Mr Ni an attractive investment proposition in the broadest possible sense – PhilanthroCapitalism, and
- Most importantly, an outcome must be prioritised that leads local residents to conclude for themselves that their day-to-day lives will be enhanced by whatever development plan (or not) is allowed to go ahead.
Click here to read the whole article for how I think a win-win-win may be possible.