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Chinese billionaire plans to rebuild Crystal Palace

A SYMBOL of Britain’s worldwide power during the 19th century will be rebuilt in London — with money from a Chinese billionaire.

The Crystal Palace, the huge Victorian exhibition center, once the largest glass structure in the world, will be brought back to life with a 500 million pound (US$811 million) investment from Shanghai-based real estate firm ZhongRong Group.

The Crystal Palace was designed by Sir Joseph Paxton for the 1851 Great Exhibition, a spectacle in which tens of thousands of exhibitors from around the world gathered to display the latest products of the Industrial Revolution.

The exhibition, conceived by Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert, attracted millions of visitors to the iron and glass building.

Victoria called the sight of it “magic and impressive,” and novelist William Thackeray even wrote a poem celebrating the structure’s opening.

Originally erected in Hyde Park, the glass structure — about the length of five soccer pitches and six stories high — was moved three years later to south London.

A fire destroyed it in 1936, leaving an overground station and south London Premier League soccer team Crystal Palace, founded at the attraction in 1905, keeping the name alive.

A replica, true to the Victorian building’s size and scale, will be built on the same site as a cultural attraction and exhibition space. Development plans also include public parks, a hotel and conference facilities.

Ni Zhaoxing, chairman of ZhongRong Group, said that he would invest 500 million pounds to rebuild the glass-and-steel building.

“We will make the new Crystal Palace a jewel on the crown for the UK and the entire world,” said Ni, who is also a collector of artwork.

Ni, whose two daughters have studied in the UK for 10 years, said he became interested in the building long before learning about its story.

Speaking in the front of the ruins, notably the stone terrace, Ni said on Thursday he had visited the site for a dozen times.

“Whenever I visited the ruins, I kept thinking about ways to restore the past glory of the Crystal Palace,” said Ni.

In accordance with his plan, the projected building would be 500 meters long and 50 meters tall upon completion in 2018. The actual construction will start in the end of 2015 and is expected to create 2,000 new jobs.

“It is like a big tree. The closer you stand, the more shade you can get. So it is the local people who will benefit the most from the project,” said Ni, who promised that “everything should be subjected to the artwork.”

London Mayor Boris Johnson, who attended the launch event on Thursday, welcomed the plan.

“This was something that stood for the very apogee of Britain’s imperial relic in the middle of 19th century,” he said. “And I think it will be an amazing thing to rebuild it in a different way with the best possible technology as a new cultural attraction.”

Johnson hoped that ordinary people could get involved by taking part in the process of consultation, and that local transport will be improved as well.

However, Ni’s reconstruction plan has proved controversial.

One web user with the name “riggbeck” wrote: “Brilliant idea. The destruction of the Crystal Palace was a huge cultural loss, and it’s shameful that it took a Chinese billionaire to make good the loss.”

Some local people voiced opposition. While Ni and Johnson were taking reporters to the site of the Crystal Palace ruins, two local residents stood in front of the terrace, holding a banner that read, “parks for people, not for profit.”

Jessica Cahill has been living in the local community for 20 years. She told Xinhua news agency that a large percentage of the local residents didn’t support the plan and some even got angry.

“It burned down 77 years ago, and now the green should be preserved which is more valuable,” said Cahill, “This is a lovely area. We’re concerned the project will bring extra traffic here.”


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