The image at left appears to be something quite impossible: a lovely modern colour digital photo of London's Crystal Palace, even though this great edifice -- first erected in 1851 -- burned to the ground in 1936! But in fact, we are deceived; it is a lovely modern photo of the Dallas Infomart, a latter-day glass palace whose architect quoted the original almost too literally -- it is even equipped with Sphinxes and a "Crystal Fountain" -- and it is also experiencing a high vacancy rate in the current recession. Nevertheless, it is testimony is clear: the influence of these Victorian pleasure palaces is enduring, even in so un-Victorian a place as the humid environs of Dallas. Indeed, even in our own area -- Reservoir Ave. in Cranston -- there is a modest replication of this design.
The other sort of Victorian leisure-ground is here as well -- many of the designs and purposes of Vauxhall-Gardens, Spring Gardens, Cremorne Gardens, Regent's Park, and other such outdoor festival-grounds are here in our own Roger Williams Park. Like them, RWP has artificial lagoons, a Bandstand, a Casino (though non-functioning in that sense), a Japanese Garden, a large Greenhouse, and a carousel/children's park. So perhaps we should go a-wandering through our own back yard, even as we imagine what it might have been like to see the lighted trees of Vauxhall some summer's evening in the 1850's .... surely our impulses are not that much different from our Victorian forebears? Nevertheless, having stood amidst the ruins of the Crystal Palace, the strongest feeling I had was that here was born, and here died, a great and gilttering glass dream -- one that, in fact, we have never ceased to hold. When we go to Disney World, Universal Studios Theme Park, or other such venues, it is to latter-day versions of the Palace that we go once again.
And when we go, of course, we know that the experience of any such "theme" park is largely a matter of artful deception. In one of his early journalistic pieces, Charles Dickens remarked on a visit to Vauxhall Gardens by Day -- and noted how, with the plain light of the sun upon them, all of the magical wonders of the night were revealed to be tawdry, painted, even dilapidated wonders. Another attraction of the Gardens -- late night drinking -- remained, in the end, almost its only source of appeal, and as the area around the Gardens grew more densely populated, neighbors grew more volubly irritated with the wandering late-night drunks, crime, and vandalism that came with it. The Gardens closed permanently in 1859, and the area was converted into commercial streets and housing estates.
In 2004, the Crystal Palace was featured in the anime steampunk classic, Steamboy; although the date was switched to 1866 and the Palace strangely removed to the banks of the Thames near Greenwich, the exterior and interior details were kept remarkably accurate. I have also put together a reference article about the palace, and the University of Virginia offers a stunning 3D model of the original structure.
It's hard to say just what the Crystal Palace stands for, or what sort of development in more recent times it most foreshadows. The lateral truss system used in its ironwork features in innumerable buildings today -- just about any WalMart or Home Depot ceiling, to name two -- and one could see it as a harbinger of the era of enclosed shopping malls. But one could also see it as a sort of horizontal skyscraper -- indeed one of the plans for rebuilding it after Hyde Park called for it to be remade into a glass tower! There is even talk of a plan to rebuild the palace on its original site.
Is there a building of similar significance today? Or where do you see the legacy of this great Crystal Palace?