A new Crystal Palace? Chinese billionaire reveals plan to replace London's glass wonder
Park users and residents greeted scheme with caution - having fought off previous plans to regenerate 180-acre site by adding housing
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Thursday 03 October 2013
An art-loving Chinese billionaire today unveiled his plans to recreate the Crystal Palace as a £500m cultural attraction to replace the glass and steel Victorian building that once captivated the world.
Ni Zhaoxing, a property developer, used a launch event in the grounds of the south London park where the original Crystal Palace burnt down in 1936 to reveal his goal of building a "jewel in the crown for Britain and the world" to employ 2,000 people.
The proposal to rebuild a modern version of Joseph Paxton's famous glass house, which housed the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park before being moved south of the Thames, was welcomed by London Mayor Boris Johnson, who denied that the plans amounted to an "act of nostalgia".
But the scheme was greeted with caution by park users and residents, who have fought off previous plans to regenerate the 180-acre site by adding housing. Protesters held a banner reading "Parks for people, not for profit" as Mr Ni toured the terraces where the palace once stood, now covered in scrubby woodland.
John Payne, chairman of the Crystal Palace Community Association, said: "We still have no real idea what is being proposed here. This building could morph into anything. We would very much expect there to be meaningful consultation."
Mr Ni, 57, insisted that his dream of recreating the 500m-long and 50m-high building, which will act as concert and exhibition venue as well as housing a potential hotel and convention centre, was about providing a legacy to London after he fell in love with the idea of resurrecting Paxton's creation, widely regarded as one of the crowning achievements of Britain's Industrial Revolution.
As well as erecting the structure, the plans involve the restoration of the surrounding park, which is owned by the London Borough of Bromley and houses the ageing National Sports Centre, with renewed Italianate terracing and a central tree-lined avenue.
The Chinese billionaire's Zhong Rong Group is one of China's fastest-growing developers after investing heavily in the expansion of Shanghai and boasts of having recently built 78 "European-style palace buildings" in Beijing. He is an avid art collector with pieces ranging from 3,000 year old Chinese works to European Old Masters.
Asked quite why his global ambitions had brought him to an unglamorous corner of south east London, Mr Ni said his two daughters had spent 10 years being educated in Britain and he had fallen for the site after learning about the Crystal Palace as young man in China.
He said: "The Crystal Palace must be an art work and an attraction of itself. I want to restore it to its former glory. There is nothing bad about this - I want to bring artwork from around the world to be valued here and bring many artists, collectors, entrepreneurs and high-end visitors."
The destruction of the original building in a blaze that could be seen across London brought more than 100,000 spectators, including future Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who declared: "This is the end of an age."
Mr Johnson, who conceded that many details of the proposal remain to decided, said: "This is going to recreate a 21st Century version of the palace. I think it is a beautiful idea. This isn't an act of nostalgia. It is looking forward and it is about adorning our city with a world-class structure."
An advisory board, including Sir Tim Smit, the co-founder of the Eden Project and chaired by Mr Johnson, has been set up to oversee the design process with a planning application expected to be submitted in 2014 and work potentially starting on the site late in 2015.
But first Mr Ni and his backers will have to persuade sceptics that, some 77 years after the Crystal Palace disappeared from the capital's landscape, it is the right thing to do to bring it back.
Charity worker Jessica Carhill, one of those holding the protest banner, said: "The Crystal Palace died in 1936. What we have now is a beautiful parkland and I'd rather not see a building on it. We are fairly sceptical that this is wholly a philanthropic exercise."
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