A Crystal Palace for the millennium

Ian Ritchie, charged with designing a leisure complex `in the spirit of' the glass extravaganza created by the technology-mad Victorians, faced a daunting array of commercial, legal and technical restrictions. His answer was to turn traditional notions upside-down, says Kester Rattenbury
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It's a national quirk that we have an overwhelming love for our innovative technology - as long as it's old. We adore the Victorian era's massive reinventions of infrastructure, partly for their historical distance.

Consider the Crystal Palace of beloved memory. When it was moved from Hyde Park to Sydenham in 1852, Charles Burton, who worked with Joseph Paxton, published plans for an alternative configuration of the building's prefabricated components: a 1,000ft glass tower on the south London skyline, a third again taller than the Eiffel tower. Sadly, the more familiar version was chosen. If it had not been, one can't help feeling that the whole of our architectural culture would have been different.

Had the palace been built in skyscraper form, the architect Ian Ritchie would have had a clear view of it from his office in Wapping's Metropolitan Wharf warehouses. He is the man commissioned to design the new Crystal Palace, and this one will be visible from his office.

Ritchie is highly respected and influential, not just for his exquisite buildings but also for his technical acumen and innovations, particularly in the structural uses of glass. His office subscribes to scientific and art journals, but few architectural magazines. And, in the great British tradition of our best architects' early careers, he has built most of his major projects abroad. Now he is putting up some major buildings at home. His new projects include the National Rowing Club's Regatta Building in London's Royal Docks (a lottery-funded project), and the temporary home for the Royal Opera House during its rebuilding.

Rebuilding Crystal Palace is part of a baffling if impressive lottery- funding strategy by which Bromley council has accumulated pounds 150m to rework completely the large but abused Crystal Palace park site. Part of this redesign involves a huge landscape scheme by the conceptual-ish American landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson, working with the architect John Lyall, who is here reworking the original Paxton gardens. Part of it involves a permanent concert platform for the lake, designed by Ritchie and made of the pre-rusted Cor-Ten steel, which will open this summer. And part of it involves constructing a big new glass building - with the somewhat daunting brief of succeeding the greatest innovatory structure of the past 200 years.

That would be frightening enough in itself, but it is made all the more difficult since planning and commercial restrictions are, to say the least, more cumbersome and intransigent than they were in 1851.

The Paxton structure was a large, empty glass shell, privately owned and hired out for functions, like a marquee. But the Bromley council of today has a somewhat more stolid view of commercial lettings. These include 10-pin bowling alleys, multiplex cinemas and extremely large car parks - none of which fit brilliantly into an all-glass structure, and few of which need daylight at all.

Yet, to comply with the various Acts of Parliament about the site, the building has to be principally made of glass, and "in the spirit of" the original. Such a brief is definitely an improvement on earlier proposals, which attempted to be "in the style of" the original.

One neo-Victorian leisure palace scheme was indeed well and truly rejected by the authorities some years ago, and when the developer, London and Regional Properties, with its firm of architects Chapman Taylor, first proposed the current version, it was accepted on condition that they must work with one of a shortlist of our foremost technically innovative architects - a list that included Ritchie, Rogers and Foster. The new strategy - and the choice - immediately began to pay off.

The late-20th-century problem was not how to mass-produce components or span huge spaces, but how to make a building containing car-parks, cinemas and bowling alleys look - and behave - like an empty, shimmering glass pavilion. Ritchie's answer was to take the preconceived commercial building - underground car park, restaurants above, cinemas and leisure above that - and turn it upside down. This meant that the gloomy underground car park goes on to the roof and is transformed into a huge open-air platform with spectacular views across London, approached by a long, elegant ramp - the biggest belvedere in the world.

The cars won't be seen from the park, because the building, like the original, is built high on a hill, and also because they will be hidden by a facade that slopes out around them, providing deep shading for the glass walls. Cars also weigh less than cinemas, so the inversion means that the heavier bits of the building are at the bottom, and the buildings' structure can be slimmer.

Below the open car park is a floor containing the restaurants and cafes - the most open-plan areas of the commercial elements. Here, Ritchie has devised an eight-metre wide perimeter zone where glass firescreens prevent the restaurants building any solid elements close to the facades, so that from the outside, the building will remain transparent. Below that, on the ground floor, will be the solid, artificially-lit bits of the buildings - cinemas, bowling alleys and so on. But from the outside, these will be wrapped in a sloping quartz plinth with running water (the building is in the location of the great fountainhead in the original Paxton gardens) which makes the lower level shimmer and reflect the light like the glass itself.

But it is also not all that easy to get glass itself as transparent as it was in 1851. This strange anomaly occurs because in 1851 small, thin panes of glass were all that were available. These days it is not commercially viable to use anything other than very large sheets of glass, which need to be much thicker, intensifying that greeny colour. But Ritchie has, of course, found one which is simply more transparent; it was used on the Ecology Gallery at the Natural History Museum in 1990, and in the new glass hall in Leipzig. And, as usual, he has started a trend among other architects.

According to Ritchie, most of the big lottery projects have represented "a polishing of the bits and bobs on the mantelpiece of Great Britain". The somewhat nervous desire slightly to improve the heritage of the radical building programmes of the Victorians has indeed been a feature of many lottery and millennium projects. You couldn't say that the Crystal Palace scheme quite fits this mould.

In the great tradition of Paxton's structure - albeit in a far more highly compromised and restrictive environment - Ritchie's scheme reinvents conventions and stretches the envelope of technology. In another great British tradition, Ritchie's move to building back home - like Foster's and Rogers' 15 years ago - is about to bring him into full national focus