Alexandra Palace – or the People’s Palace, as it has been branded since its construction and opening in the second-half of the nineteenth century – proudly stands surveying north-east London. With sandwiches and sun cream, we planted ourselves upon a beautifully manicured lawn within Alexandra Park amidst the regimented flowerbeds so typical of nineteenth-century public parks. As we surveyed the panoramic view of London that spread out beneath us, our gaze and thoughts turned to the other attractions this Victorian creation has to offer (see painting above). Despite being commonly known as one of London’s best picnicking spots, the complex history of this site is hidden from most visitors who attend. Even thought there were large celebrations held last year to mark the 150th anniversary of its conception, the venue lives in the present, with few references to its historical past.
This large and ornately decorated building is located at the top of an extremely steep hill just outside of Wood Green and is the proud owner of a railway station named after itself, a boating lake, a deer park, a BBC transmitter and an ice rink. Although not all Victorian originals, these accolades demonstrate the Victorians’ aims for this site. First opened in 1873, it was intended as a location for north Londoners to come and partake in a whole range of entertainments – something of a rival to the recently relocated Crystal Palace, which went south to Sydenham. Despite fire, vandalism, and neglect, the building continues to play host to exhibitions and concerts to this day – as originally intended – fittingly providing the site with a long history of fun and frivolity.
However, the building has a history of entertainment and education which dates back before its life as Alexandra Palace began. The building was not a new build, but a material appropriation. Many of the bricks used to construct the building had originally formed the structure of the building used to house the 1862 International Exhibition in South Kensington. Although never highly praised as an object of good design, this temporary construction not only seems to have lent its material make-up to Alexandra Palace, but also inspired its formal composition. Stretching out along the hill, the Palace is symmetrical in composition – apart from the transmitter on the right hand corner – with a central block ornamented by the round ‘rose’ window (see above) and domes on both ends. This replicates the general format of the façade of the 1862 International Exhibition – with the exception of the wings which then extended behind the two domed court at the earlier configuration.
Despite the material and aesthetic similarities between the 1862 International Exhibition and Alexandra Palace, it is now very difficult to decipher which parts of the existing building are more than a wink and a nudge to its 150 year history. Succumbing to fire days after it was opened in 1873, used and abused during both the world wars, and then re-furbished in the 1990s by Haringey Council – a careful look at the bricks, masonry, decorative features and ornamental flourishes in the present building demonstrates the composite nature of this building and its history. These re-appropriations and restorations make Ally Pally a surprisingly complicated structure to read.
The building is comprised of bricks of many colours. In some instances this is a clear decorative choice – but it many others it is a response to change over time, addition, subtraction and re-design. Alternative materials have been added on both a permanent and temporary bases (see left), and in many places the appropriation of architectural feature feels more like a cut and paste job than assimilation or even potential up-cycling (as below).
Although credit must be given for the maintenance of the nineteenth-century character of the building – with turquoise hand rails, lamp-posts and view finders along its front transporting the visitor back to the Victorian seaside – this can at times appear less successful and more forced. The palms and Egyptian sphinxes in the ‘Palm Court’ are more Las Vegas than Kew Gardens, and the pointing figure signs and signage font pull Punch and Judy out of the Mop Fair and into the exhibitionary culture of the twentieth century.
What Henry Cole would say of the mass open and empty space inside the main exhibition hall that one can catch a glimpse of when peeping through the round windows in the building’s front doors is debatable. However, we are certain that an ice-rink and boating lake would not have lived up to his expectations of education and edification – but he would have been more impressed by the symbol of British engineering innovation poised atop the building’s right corner!
To finish, this site and our visit is perhaps best summed up by this image:
Closest to us sits – bobbing – the most obvious sign of entertainment and fun: plastic dragon and swan pedal boats. Watching over them in a quasi-protective manner is one Alexandra Palace’s two domes, which stands beside the BBC transmitter – confidently pointing to the sky and beyond. These three very different functional, material and structural objects encompass the very essence and history of Alexandra Palace, simultaneously speaking of its past, present, and future.
© Helen Cresswell and Ruth Mason, 2014