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The idea of a building

This is the speech I prepared for ‘Who owns culture?’ – the first in a new series of debates called The Information Project, which took place last night at the Salvation Army in Upper Norwood. The aim is to stimulate local debate around the ZhongRong Group’s proposals for a ‘new’ Crystal Palace. I wrote it out in advance of speaking, so thought I may as well publish it here.

“I want to talk about absence. The power of what’s been lost. Because if we’re discussing notions of ownership and culture in relation to Crystal Palace Park, then absence is a critical factor.

What do I mean by absence? Quite simply, the vacuum left by the original Palace, without which the open space, and so much that’s distinctive about the surrounding district, might not exist.

I feel this absence very intensely. In writing my novel I spent five years imagining what the Palace and the park used to look like, what they used to feel like, at different points in their history. And that level of immersion creates a powerful bond with the space; one which I don’t believe would be as strong were it all still there.

I don’t think the power of absence is limited to me as an artist either. I think it’s something felt by anyone who’s spent time in that beautiful, absorbing but ultimately ghostly park. I might even argue that the Palace’s absence is the fuel that gives our community such life; that the proud sense of ownership we see exhibited by Crystal Palace residents – a cultural phenomenon which is evident again now, just as it is relation to the Church Road cinema, and as it was at the turn of the millennium – is partly due to the power of what no longer exists, and the strong connection which that absence demands you make with the area’s past.

Put simply, the Palace’s absence is why we’re here. And that sense of ownership is why we should be vigilant when a commercial developer deploys the word culture as a basis for restoring presence to the park. Because as well as being a positive force for engagement, absence can too easily become an excuse to take liberties.

The climate is intriguing in this respect. To my mind, culture and commerce are enjoying a warmer relationship than they have for many years. I freely admit to visiting cultural venues – the Southbank Centre, say – with no more high-minded an aim than to enjoy shopping, eating or drinking in slightly more civilised surroundings than the average high street. I understand how those spaces work, and I think a lot of them are to be valued.

The difference is that all the precedents have established cultural assets at their hubs – giving credence to the use of culture as justification for the commercial appropriation of public space. Crystal Palace Park is different. Here, we’re being asked to sacrifice an area of Metropolitan Open Land based on a cultural asset that hasn’t yet been defined beyond the basic idea of a building.

Perhaps that in itself is enough. The scheme has gained momentum by virtue of the idea of the Palace itself – what actually goes in it is self-confessedly an afterthought. Looking back, it feels almost like the developer hoped the Palace itself would be considered enough of a cultural asset to justify the development, and enable them take the necessary liberties with legislation. And I wonder if that hope isn’t at least partly intended to play on our understanding of how successful cultural/commercial spaces work. Because if we’re honest, we can all imagine the kind of thing it will be, right? A bit like all those other commercially cultural spaces that we’ve come to love. A kind of museumy, arty, boutiquey sort of thing.

The question is to what extent do we require more detail about what exactly the place will contain, what exactly its culture will entail, before we are happy to give up bits of our park?

And this is where we must have our historical wits about us. Because the more you learn about the park’s history, the more questions are begged of this audaciously vague use of the word ‘culture’. The Palace – staggering though it was – was ultimately the world’s biggest ever shed. I don’t mean to belittle what was clearly an architectural and engineering masterpiece, but the building was always secondary to what went in it – and what went on outside it, in the grounds. The history of the place reads like an encyclopaedia of all the stuff culture can mean.

And it never stood still. In the Palace, culture never meant one single thing. It was a place that, retrospectively, embodied culture in all its indefinable, evolving and often uncomfortable diversity. And that historical precedent should, frankly, make us all the more wary. Because if ever there was an institution that grappled with what culture means – if ever there was a ‘white elephant ahead’ warning – it wasn’t the Millennium Dome; it was the Sydenham Crystal Palace.

That’s why I worry that this use of the word ‘culture’ feels not so much regressive as reductive – simplifying the heritage of the Palace into a singular, rose-tinted version of something that was fundamentally multi-faceted, and not without consequent problems.

Of course, it’s quite possible that the developers deserve more credit; that they’re waiting for designers to expand their definition of culture because they’re aspiring to the same freeform diversity that, for good and bad, distinguished Paxton’s palace.

But either way, as custodians of the park – as those who have succumbed to the romance of the Palace’s absence – it falls to the local community to fill the void. To make sure history plays a key role in this debate – filling the vacuum left by the original Palace, and spotlighting the ongoing absence of any further information as to what this ‘new’ Crystal Palace is going to contain.”

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