Imagine living in London in the latter half of the 19th century. It must have been a great place to live and experience the city growing and developing with new residential areas, new railway stations and new exhibition halls to cement London’s position as a major international centre for design and technology, using the most modern techniques of cast iron and glass introduced at Joseph Paxton’s 92,000 sq m cast iron and glass “Crystal Palace” for the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was then relocated and enlarged south of the river to Penge Common in 1854 until it was destroyed by fire in 1936. Visitors, used to traditional solid dark masonry buildings must have been astonished at this amazing new technology which was also transform railway station design.
The Royal Agricultural Hall opened in Islington in 1862 and was almost lost to demolition in the 1980’s, but was saved and converted to the Building Design Centre in 1986 providing exhibition space, conference facilities, showrooms and offices for design companies. When built, it was one of the largest permanent exhibition halls in the world and now hosts a number of annual exhibitions including the London Art Fair, the largest contemporary art fair in the UK.
Two decades later in 1886 the National Agricultural Hall Company opened the UK’s largest show venue at Olympia, designed by Henry Edward Coe who was responsible for the Agricultural Hall in Islington twenty five years before and took its barrel-roof form as the basis for the new building. He would be amused to see that it is his two buildings that have survived into the 21st century.
There has always been competition between the different exhibition halls in London. A year after the opening of Olympia, the new Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre opened only a mile away, to be rebuilt as one of Europe’s largest exhibition halls in 1937 and extended with a further hall in 1991. The first exhibition included performances by Buffalo Bill Cody as part of the ‘American Exhibition’ and it was London’s premier exhibition hall for many decades, hosting the Royal Tournament and Earls Court Motor Show, Ideal Home Show and a number of other notable events and music concerts with many iconic artists. It was also used as one of the venues for both the 1948 and 2012 Olympic Games.
The death knell for either Earl’s Court or Olympia came with the opening in 2000 of ExCeL (Exhibition Centre London) on a 100-acre (0.40 km2) site in London’s Docklands between Canary Wharf and London City Airport, extended in 2010 with the International Convention Centre which was also used for the 2012 Olympics for boxing, fencing, judo, taekwondo, table tennis, weightlifting and wresting. Comparable in floor area with the Crystal Palace of 1851, it has stolen exhibitions such as the London Boat Show and the London Motor show and the axe finally fell with controversial plans to demolish Earls Court for redevelopment as a new residential and retail complex.
London now has the two surviving historic exhibition centres, Olympia and the Business Design Centre in Islington. Was the right decision made to demolish Earl’s Court? It created great controversy at the time and its transport links are superior to the other halls. However, two exhibitions held this week indicate that the two new venues can survive and hold their own against the competition from Excel, in part because of their characterful design and in part because of their location in the heart of London with many hotels and restaurants in the adjacent areas.
“Top Drawer” has really responded to the opportunities of Olympia. London’s major trade exhibition for design, home and gift retailers, it had become a little repetitive over the past few years but has now transformed itself, making best use of the interconnection of the two major exhibition halls at Olympia and adding new zones for fashion, crafts and new talent, while at the Business Design Centre, this year’s London Art Fair continues to present contemporary, modern and emerging artistic talent.
At “Top Drawer”, design firms such as LSA which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, showing both original designs which are now back in fashion and their newest, while Alessi is displaying its new range by architect David Chipperfield. Many of the design firms contrast traditional timber structures and displays with the newest furniture and accessories for the interior design market.
It is the crafts that really shine this year with artists such as Stephan Farnan with his “Captured Memories”, Helania Sharpley with her wireworks, Damien Borowik with his exquisite drawings and Lynda Gault and Sarah Villeneau with their beautiful ceramics.
Lastly, and something that should be developed further is “Pepe Heykoop” an initiative that creates great designs and supports communities living in slums in Mumbai. All the products are made by women of the Pardeshi community. Dutch designer Pepe Heykoop working with the Tiny Miracles Community hopes to bring 700 people out of poverty by 2020 and currently emply 100 women to manufacture their designs. We need more of this!