Isambard Kingdom Brunel's water towers at Crystal Palace, once famed throughout the British Empire for their height and grandeur, are to be rebuilt in a remarkable plan that blends history with cutting-edge green technology.
A major redevelopment of the south London parkland site will see the towers again dominate the surrounding area, just as they loomed for nearly 80 years over the pleasure gardens once described by Queen Victoria as "a magical fairyland."
The original towers, which were 280 feet tall, fed hundreds of tons of water to showpiece fountains below and were completed by Brunel in 1855. The new structures will employ state-of-the-art engineering to draw in wind at their base to power internal turbines and generate electricity.
The vast glass conservatory that stood next to the towers for decades and became an icon of the Victorian age was designed by Joseph Paxton to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. Boasting nearly a million square feet of glass, the pavilion was quickly dubbed the Crystal Palace. After wowing the crowds in Hyde Park, where it was first erected, the whole building, along with much of its landscaped grounds and entertainments, was recreated on an even more impressive scale on Sydenham Hill in south-east London.
In order to feed Paxton's new fountains on the site, Brunel built towers with tanks at the top that could hold 1,200 tons of water. A year after the towers were finished, the fountains were unveiled. Visitors were reportedly astounded by their 11,788 jets of water, all flowing at 120,000 gallons a minute. Word of these delights spread speedily through Europe and the French emperor, Napoleon III, paid a visit with his consort, Eugenie. Influential concerts given there in those early years introduced Schubert, Schumann, and Sullivan to the British public. Now the London Development Agency is planning to regenerate the historic site and bring back some its former glory.
Shown here: Postcard showing the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, 1905 (top); the fountains on the Italian terraces were just some of the water features fed by water stored in a pair of water towers, one at each end of the building, which were designed by Brunel (bottom).