diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Crystal opened to the public yesterday.
The Crystal is a sustainable cities initiative by Siemens that explores how we can create a better future for our cities. It is home to the world's largest exhibition focused on urban sustainability. As a world-class centre for dialogue, discovery and learning, it reveals the challenges that cities face, and the ways we can reduce their environmental impact using sustainable technologies, many available today.
It's not sounding great so far, is it?
Based in the Royal Victoria Docks, the centre of London's new Green Enterprise District, the Crystal is a natural home for thought leadership on urban sustainability. It provides a global knowledge hub that helps a diverse range of audiences learn and understand how we can all work to build better cities for ourselves and for future generations. Experts on urban sustainability will be available to exchange ideas, while a dynamic conference programme will foster dialogue between stakeholders.
Still, at least it looks interesting.

The Crystal is Newham's latest pride and joy, a long spiky glass building at one end of the Royal Victoria Dock, close to the Dangleway's northern terminal. It was due to open in time for the Olympics, to soak up tourists with nowhere to go, but construction and fitting out took a little longer than expected. The end result - with a cablecar landing alongside alien shininess - means there are few more futuristic-looking corners of London. The whole thing has been funded and built by German company Siemens, who do all sorts of engineering things you're probably not familiar with, and they'd like to change that. Half of the building is a conference centre, backroom offices and a café, and the other half an urban sustainability exhibition. It's not going to be an easy sell.

To kickstart day one, Newham held a Waterfront Festival which succeeded in bringing the crowds. Music blared from a temporary stage, faces got painted, beer flowed, and children poked around inside an inflatable whale (like you do). One of the longest queues was for a raffle to win one of 50 return trips on the cablecar, which I fear says more about the disposable income of local residents than the excitement of the journey. The Newham Steel Band cheered up the area by the bar (thanks Felix, thanks Marcia), and there were watersports and boat trips around the dock. An extensive area alongside the Crystal has been semi-cultivated with raised borders and diagonal paths - the 21st century version of an Elizabethan knot garden. Alas it was being summarily ignored by almost all the day's attendees, probably because it's had less than one season to bed in, but hopefully will look a little greener next spring. Meanwhile the café inside the venue was being well frequented, thanks to realistic prices and some appealing-looking baked snacks.

And so to the exhibition. There was a queue to get in (which I suspect will be a one-off), but also free biros for everyone (which may not be). A surprise - the building feels smaller on the inside than it looks on the outside, with the main display space clustered around a central mezzanine. We were directed first upstairs, to the 'Forces of Change' zone, where we filed into the small cinema for the a/v presentation. A succession of urban themes sped by, like the bullet points in a GCSE Geography essay, but nicely illustrated with globally sourced images. The picture quality suffered somewhat when a small child worked out he could stand on one of the projectors, but thankfully he got bored quickly and wandered off. The "megatrends" theme continued outside on a few electronic displays, with Demographic Change considerably more interesting than Climate Change or Urbanisation, but upstairs felt perhaps a little sparse.

The main body of stuff to do is downstairs, divided into several themed zones. Some are more interesting than others, with "Smart Buildings" probably the most tedious. "Water is Life" looks more spectacular, with a waterfall rolling off the upper floor to flow off a transparent table, but the associated text goes a bit too deeply into "non-potable sources" and "rainwater harvesting" to inspire the average visitor. A Boris bike makes an appearance in the transport zone, and the man himself appears on video in "Future Cities" giving a cogent argument for low-carbon initiatives (like a certain New Bus). Expect to have to read stuff if you want to get the most out of your visit. The Crystal's very much a fact-dropping place ("every second the world's cities grow by two people") ("on a planet of 7 billion, only 90 million are over the age of eighty... for now"). Although there's plenty to press, select and slide, children under the age of 10 aren't likely to be entertained.

All of the interactive displays launch with the swipe of a card, which caused a major problem yesterday because there weren't enough of these to go round. Instead management took the decision to distribute no cards at all, so staff had to keep wandering around to launch things else we couldn't view them. This made for a frustrating sub-optimal experience, having to walk past potentially interesting exhibits, although that was probably a Day One Only issue. There again, while some of the interactives were fun and thought-provoking, others were merely linear, or over-fiddly, or with non-obvious confusing functionality. By the time I sort-of understood what I was doing in the "Creating Cities" simulation I'd bankrupted the council coffers, and the complete four-player game proved much too complex for one run-through. Maybe that was the point.

I was expecting more of a hard sell from Siemens, but there was reassuringly little. The electric car in "Keep Moving" is plugged into a Siemens charging point, and the interactive windpower graphic has "Siemens" written entirely unnecessarily on all the turbines. Other than that, all the branding is concealed in which aspects of sustainability the exhibition chooses to showcase and which it doesn't. The "Healthy Life" section focuses on company-specific areas of technology such as CT scanners, while "Clean and Green" spends too long on waste management and not enough on practical advice. In fact I'd say that's The Crystal's major failing. I came away aware of several things that people should be doing to make their cities better, but felt that most of these were for architects, planners and politicians to undertake, not me. The Crystal's not a "change your lightbulbs and recycle more" sort of place, it's aimed more at education than direct action. Whether this is a sustainable attraction has yet to be proven, but a visit here (not Sundays) (nor Mondays) will definitely make you think. [8 photos]

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