Tuesday, August 3, 2010

GUEST POST: Crystal Palace Park

Tom Slatter is a composer, singer and songwriter who writes records, plays and teaches in London. His first solo album, Spinning the Compass, is a mixture of acoustic indie with a steampunk theme and a hint of prog rock experimentation. The album explores themes of love, flying machines, nightmares involving cable cars and steam engine related body horror. You can find Tom on Twitter (@tomslatter) and on his website, http://www.tomslatter.co.uk.

One of the themes my favorite steampunk artworks share with their namesake cyberpunk is that of urban decay. The novels of China Mieville in their depiction of New Crobuzon, for example, epitomize this squalor. Living next to Crystal Palace park in South London, I get to see a lot of it first hand.

Crystal Palace park is a Steampunk's dream -- the whole place is stuffed with decaying Victoriana and apart from the 1970s concrete monstrosity of the central athletics stadium, the park looks as if it hasn't been touched for over a hundred years.

The crumbling steps in Crystal Palace Park
The Crystal Palace itself was originally built in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, an industrial world's fair designed to showcase the Industrial Prowess of Imperial Britain. The Palace was dismantled and moved to Sydenham Hill in 1854, eventually giving its name to that area of South London.

The Palace was used for various purposes after being moved to Sydenham Hill, including the training of RAF servicemen for World War I, however in 1936 in burnt down and as it was uninsured there was no money to rebuild. All that remains are ruins and the tantalizing remnants of past glories.

One of the Sphinxes that sits at the top of Crystal Palace hill
The Victorians had incredibly high opinions of themselves -- they saw themselves as the most civilized and advanced nation on the planet, and their architecture reflects this. Royal palaces in central London all bear classical columns and Latin mottoes in a blatant attempt to associate with the heights of ancient Greek civilization. The Crystal Palace ruins include statues of Indian nobles and four concrete Sphinxes, complete with hieroglyphs. These sit at the top of Crystal Palace hill, one of the highest points in London, and can only be reached by climbing the crumbling weather-beaten steps that are all that remain of the building.

Further down the hills even more exciting remains can be found. The Crystal Palace Dinosaur Park are a showcase of both the wonder and interest Victorians had for science and the natural world, and a reminder of how little we knew then compared to now.

Two of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins's dinosaurs
Sculpted by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins in 1854, the Dinosaurs  and other extinct creatures are shown in various poses across several islands. They were unveiled a full 6 years before the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species and could be said to constitute the first ever theme-park. There was even tie-in merchandise available in the form of educational dinosaur toys. The dinosaurs are in fact quite innaccurate, but nonetheless there is something quite wonderful about the idea of the first ever theme park being dedicated to cutting edge biology.

A handy audio guide, targeted at kids, has recently been produced at www.audiotrails.co.uk.

The twentieth century additions to the park are far less exciting -- sterile 1960s concrete and weathered plastic. The Victorian parts, while still hinting at the grandeur of the times, have fallen into disrepair that to me seems thoroughly steampunk.

The steampunk part of me wouldn't want to live anywhere else.


JournoMich said...

I wonder if the Sphinx was original, or if it came about after the Carter excavatin of Tut's tomb? From my memory, that's when Egyptian influence became big in art, architecture, and home decor.

Very interesting!


Tom Murphy said...

I also live by Crystal Palace Park, and have been fascinated by its history since moving to the area about 20 years ago.

From a steampunky point of view, it's also worth recording that it's the location of the Royal London Spaceport in Robert Rankin's The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions, a sort-of-sequel to War of the Worlds set in an alternative 1895 where the British Empire reverse-engineered the Martians' technology and went back to conquer the Red Planet.