Friday, September 29, 2006

London Structures: High Victorian Taj Mahal

Hyde Park is crowded with deeply flawed Royal Monuments – the Diana Fountain is just the latest. This example is the High Victorian answer to the Taj Mahal; and certainly its grief-stricken genesis is as poignant. It is the future Empress of India’s memorial to her departed consort. The Victorians lavished the finest materials and most expensive talents of their day on its decoration. Unfortunately, they were less concerned about its engineering and we recently had to pay £17m for its renovation.

Ironically, this overgrown Gothic casket stands on the location of Great Britain’s supreme contribution to the history of modern architecture, the Crystal Palace, and commemorates the forward-thinking man who commissioned that vanished edifice.

Victoria’s grief was purest gold – she gilded Albert’s statue from head to foot. Her descendants, embarrassed by her faux pas, had it painted black to prevent German zeppelins navigating over London by the moonbeams glinting off Albert’s head (that’s what their press release said at the time). It remained black for the remainder of the 20th century.

The best thing English Heritage ever did was to regild the statue in direct defiance of the present Royal family’s objections. Tasteless but true to Victoria’s intentions: triumphantly making this what it needs so desperately to be – so bad it’s good.

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