diamond geezer

 Sunday, June 22, 2008

London Festival of Architecture (Hub 1 - Kensington)

the Brompton StoopsA whole month of architectural events. Fab. It could only be a London thing (and not, for example, an Ipswich thing or a Hull thing). This weekend the main focus of events has been Kensington and Chelsea, and in particular Exhibition Road (the street where all the museums are). Yesterday the entire thoroughfare was closed to traffic and a motley hotchpotch of arty, buildingy and musicy events took over. The effort expended to bring this cultural extravaganza to the public should not be underestimated. You'd have enjoyed it, honest.

The event both celebrated architecture and added to it. From the Gothic splendour of the Natural History Museum to the modern shiny glass of Imperial College, there's plenty to see here even on an ordinary day. But for the LFA we got much more. A pink hand-printed pinnacle raised into position by Foster + Partners. Squat mirrored pedestals reflecting shoes and tarmac. An impromptu seating area made from stepped cardboard boxes where you could stop and listen to ranting poets. Four Routemaster buses packed with playspace and paper models. And a portable pavilion carted across the Atlantic inside 18 suitcases and reassembled by the public by clipping together bits of star-shaped plastic [photo] [photo]. To name but a few.

LFA Flower PavilionThe event also coincided with an international Music Day, so there were performers and artistes dotted everywhere. A samba troupe here, a plaintive acapella vocalist there, and a splendid brass band up on that balcony. Kids were having a great time - a lot of the activities were specifically aimed at them (although the free lollipops were going down just as well with the adults). One day the local council hopes to pedestrianise Exhibition Road, so there was an exhibit with a model of what that might look like. I even spotted the Mayor of Kensington and Chelsea wandering around with her civic entourage (at least I'm assuming she was the Mayor, no middle-aged woman normally wears that much heavy bling around her neck unless she's been elected). And off to one side in Princes Gardens, out of sight and out of mind for most of the festivalgoers, the yellow petalled dome of Tonkin Liu's Fresh Flower Pavilion.

But my favourite event was taking place just to the north, on the edge of Hyde Park. It may look like an ordinary football kickabout space today, but in 1851 this grassy expanse close to the Prince's Gate was the original site of the legendary Crystal Palace. This was the defining structure of the Great Exhibition, constructed in modular form from wrought iron and glass, and tall enough to surround several elm trees which happened to fall within its perimeter. Inside were exhibits to showcase the very best of Victorian accomplishment, along with galleries devoted to international culture and trade with the far-flung Empire. And then after the exhibition the entire building was shipped off to Sydenham, leaving nothing behind but memories.

the Crystal Palace reemergesThis weekend a group of architects and artists are attempting to recreate the original Crystal Palace in mnemonic form. They spent Friday pacing out the Hyde Park site and placing small plastic markers where each of the hundreds of pillars had been... and then replacing them after Royal Parks groundsmen took their litter-collecting duties rather too zealously. They've not been terribly accommodating, the Royal Parks authorities. The organiser's original plan was to fly helium balloons at some of the pillar locations, just to give a sense of height and scale, but these might have interfered with bats (apparently), so no balloons were allowed. Instead visitors have to make do with a 2D representation of the great building, with small coloured cones stretching far off into the distance, and imagine the rest from that.

I was shown around the site by its chief protagonist, who was extremely keen to explain how the whole project worked. We strolled up what had been the main transept, between the Indian and Tunisian galleries, to the site of the central crystal fountain. Look, that's the centre of the palace in the photo, marked out by a few strip of cardboard. A historian was at hand with a genuine glass chunk from Osler's original fountain, which I duly handled, and how wonderfully evocative was that? Then we walked approximately seven pillars to the left (check map, yes, this used to be Ceylon) and my guide pointed out some of the artefacts he'd positioned around the site as reflections of each area's previous use. An industrial iron machine-type thing, for example, which we repositioned in what was once "Lathes, tools and milling".

OK, so it's just a few plastic cones in a park, and they're only there until the end of today, but they certainly succeeded in opening my eyes to the unique history of this patch of grassland. Next time I'm back in this corner of Hyde Park I'll have memories of the echoes of a fantastic Victorian achievement, whereas all you'd see would be picnicking families, scampering dogs and jumpers for goalposts. I believe there are plans to repeat and extend the project in the future, leading up to a more impressive temporary installation in 2012. I certainly hope so, and I trust the palace will be allowed balloons next time.

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