Last week I was on the bus reading a newspaper story about the shelving of plans to rebuild The Crystal Palace, the cast-iron, steel and glass monument to modernity that was built for the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. The Crystal Palace was an architectural powerhouse; a never-before-seen feat of Victorian engineering that was destroyed by fire in 1936. The plans to reconstruct it – funded by a Chinese developer – have stalled, but its legend endures.
Midway through the story, I pressed the button and made my way downstairs the double-decker bus. As I did so, I whacked my head on the ceiling and was then flung down the stairs as the bus screeched to a halt. I was trying to tackle the descent on the New Routemaster buses, which were brought back to life by designer Thomas Heatherwick in 2012. “Good riddance, Crystal Palace,” I thought as I alighted via the back door and was almost knocked down by a cyclist.
For those not familiar with London, the New Routemaster is the modern-day reincarnation of the cherished double deckers that first entered service in the 1950s. They were known for their jump-on-and-off door at the back, where a polite Noel Coward-type conductor would assist passengers. They were taken off the roads in the early 2000s much to the dismay of the British public. In a nostalgic flourish, the public’s cries to bring them back were answered by London mayor Boris Johnson and reintroduced – just as The Crystal Palace almost was.
Heatherwick’s reincarnation captures the charm of the original Routemaster but also its design flaws. As cute as they were and as evocative as the memory of them is, industrial design has vastly improved since the 1950s. The buses that replaced the Routemasters were simply better designed. There’s a reason why people do not jump off buses willy-nilly through back doors anymore, there’s a reason why ceiling heights have been raised and staircases aren’t located at the back: so passengers don’t have to walk counter to the direction of travel.
And there’s a reason why The Crystal Palace should not be reconstructed. Architecture, like industrial design, is not the place for nostalgia. Rebuilding it would be nothing other than kitsch and we seem to be in the grips of that with our current “Keep Calm and Carry On”, Cath Kidston culture. We must press on. The Crystal Palace went down in history because of its context. When context changes, design loses its power and relevance. I would dearly love to see Concorde take to the skies again but now we have the A380. You could try to rebuild the Library of Alexandria, you could rewrite all the lost works by Aristotle and Sophocles that also went up in flames, but what would that achieve?
The Crystal Palace was named as such because it was the first time the world had seen such a shimmering steel-and-glass behemoth. Now you can’t move in London for such beasts. Let’s leave game-changing examples of design and architecture in the history books and not look back – they’ll never lose their shine that way and I won’t be banging my head.
Tom Morris is Monocle’s design editor.