"We are surrounded by zombie architecture"

"We are surrounded by zombie architecture"

Opinion: Sam Jacob argues against the resurrection of Crystal Palace in London and urges us to "resist the pull of loss and nostalgia".


When the dead return, the world of the living is thrown into turmoil, as we've just seen in French TV show The Returned that's been spooking out British audiences for the last eight weeks. In The Returned, the undead are not zombies out to eat your brain, but far more puzzling entities. They are confused themselves at their return to the living.

The blurry distinction between states of being alive, dead and undead might be tropes of supernatural dramas and horror films, but their questions are part and parcel of the everyday landscape of architecture and cities.

It's just this situation that's suggested by plans revealed earlier this week for the resurrection of Crystal Palace in London by what the press refers to as "a Chinese billionaire".

The original Crystal Palace was built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park. Designed by Joseph Paxton, it was a huge iron and steel structure, itself a technological triumph of the Victorian age. It housed a vast assemblage of the bounty and riches of imperial Britain and the marvels it could produce. After the exhibition ended, its contents were distributed to seed the museums of Exhibition Road.

The structure itself was dismantled, transported and rebuilt in Sydenham where it failed to ever really settle. Despite boasting that it hosted the world's first cat show, visitor numbers were poor. Its decline was dramatically ended when it burnt to the ground in 1936. The architecture gone, its presence remains in the huge plinth that sits at the top of the park and the name bequeathed both to the area and its football team. The building's absence, even as its name is remembered, is ever present.

Despite not being here, the Crystal Palace remains highly significant architecturally. Crystal Palace exists as a foundation myth for a certain idea of British architecture. High-tech claimed it as an inheritance, as part of the tradition of glass-and-steel engineering that eventually became the Centre Pompidou, the Lloyds building and so on.

It also gave us another architectural thread that winds through Modernism: it was in the Crystal Palace that German architect Gottfried Semper encountered the structure that was to become his primitive hut. A colonial reconstruction of a native hut, in other words, acted as his cypher for the essential. That it should take the apogee of the industrial revolution - the immense wealth and reach of high colonialism - to invent this primitivism is odd in itself. Though of course, the idea of the primitive can only be conceived from a position of un-primitivism.

So what of the idea to reconstruct the Crystal Palace? Its own history of building and rebuilding on a different site suggests it might be a more likely subject than many for this treatment, but perhaps Semper's Primitive Hut inside a crystalline industrialised structure might make us think twice.

Any return - of history, primitiveness or anything buried in the past - can only be as perplexing as the undead are to the living. What would you do with your reanimated great great great great grandma? And what would she do in the here and now, brought back without her consent into the present, only to die again?

Even something as outwardly simple as food: think of all those artisanal breads, of peasant food remade as luxury dining on heirloom fruit and veg. These returned artefacts are only possible because of a highly complex, super-refined culture. When these things return to us, they return in a drastically altered form. Even if they are entirely the same in ingredients, shape, size, texture and so on, they are completely different. Re-animation can't bring back the original but rather invents a new form of the present.

These plans for the Crystal Palace are not unique. In fact, we are surrounded by zombie architecture, re-animated Frankenstein's monsters: Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion, the Dresden Frauenkirche, Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye, Charles Rennie Mackintosh's House for an Art Lover, to name but a few. The Euston Arch and The Skylon are just other examples of the past that threatens to resurface in the present.

The state that this returned architecture takes is an idealised version of itself. The Villa Savoye, for example, spent very little time as the house it was originally intended to be: it was a cow shed for longer and a derelict building for even longer. That we choose to return it to an imaginary state is hardly an innocent decision. Rather, it's one loaded with a contemporary idea of what that particular building and architecture in general is. We remake history in our own image.

Buildings exist in a time as well as space. They rot, crumble, break and leak. They require constant repair. In our quest for the authenticity of historic architecture, we often find ourselves running into Theseus's paradox. It runs like this: on his return to Athens, the hero's ship was placed in dry dock as a monument and in seaworthy condition. Over time, pieces of the boat were replaced as it rotted. At a certain point, the paradox emerged: if none of the original material remained, was this still Theseus's boat? As it is for classical philosophers, so it is for contemporary conservationists. Where, in other words, does architectural or historical authenticity reside?

There is already a replica of the Crystal Palace, but in Dallas, not south London. It houses a technology office and data centre and its lobby contains a reproduction of the Crystal Fountain. The Infomart, as it is called, was honoured with a visit in 1986 by that renowned British architecture expert Prince Charles. In promotional material, the Infomart's developer was quoted with what must be some kind of garbled and/or fabricated anointment: "England's parliament declared the Infomart official successor to the Crystal Palace." This of course reveals how history itself can be made a commodity. The statement shows how the Infomart's developer attempts to fold the aura of the original Crystal Palace into its spec development.

Behind the innocent claims of honouring the past and righting wrongs done unto culture by acts of god or the wrecking ball, there is always another agenda. History acts as a convenient alibi for contemporary motivations. Though it presents itself as an innocent act, philanthropic even, we should remember Churchill saying that history is written by the victors. History, in other words, is not something that happened in the past but a function of contemporary power. Reanimating its form in the present is equally a function of contemporary power.

We may mourn the past. We may feel intense sorrow at the gaping voids left in the present by things that have vanished, but we should resist the pull of these feelings of loss and nostalgia. The Crystal Palace functions perfectly well in its absence (perhaps even more so than if it were still here). Its return as a ghost, zombie or otherwise undead form of architecture should be seen for what it is: a ghoulish pull on our tender heartstrings in the service of large scale development. Its construction, like the Infomart in its cheap cartooning of history, would only make our sense of loss greater.


Sam Jacob is a director of architecture practice FAT, professor of architecture at University of Illinois Chicago and director of Night School at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, as well as editing www.strangeharvest.com.