Engels was graphically describing the slums of industrial cities; only two years had elapsed since the second great cholera epidemic; Chadwick’s and his Commissioners’ unprecedented and terrifying Report on public health was only nine years old; and Dickens was starting to address the conflict between human nature and the industrial city. Clearly the machine was in urgent need of defence for too much was at stake. (Markus 227)Markus does not even come close to the horrific social implications of a building such as the Crystal Palace. I cannot think of the Crystal Palace without feeling disgusted about the almost 200 years of British colonial rule over the place I was born in. Long before the British “Raj” was officially established in India in 1858, the British East India Company, a trading group, had established a hold there, served over the years as mercenaries for Princes as part of a “divide and rule” scheme, beheaded the last Mughal emperor’s sons and exiled him to Burma, and taken possession of very cultural products that were displayed at the Crystal Palace. The building was a symbol in built form of the power of the empire on which “the sun never set”. The British gave India colonial architecture and “clubs” (which still exist today for the elite) that at the time had signs that said “No dogs or Indians allowed”. The very architecture was employed to enclose, limit, exclude, and subdue. But in response to the mutiny in 1857, the British made their telegraph and rail systems better. Modernity came to India.
As far as the Crystal Palace is concerned I am ambivalent. I think that this change in architecture can be viewed as a positive sign. Both the railway lines of India and the architecture of the Crystal Palace signify a shift in the tide. By their very nature, these products of industry enable mobility and transparency. They are inclusive and empowering. They invite the street urchin of London and the token Indian and the Queen all into the same repetitive/democratic space.
Architecture has the ability to straddle politics. Meant for one purpose, it can activate another at the same time. This gives architects a lot of agency. While fulfilling the demands of the patron, the architect can create a space that serves a larger constituency and that addresses the concerns of a marginalized people. I am not saying that Paxton intended this—intention is not necessary for architecture to operate like this. But isn’t it interesting that he was a mere “gardener boy”?