The Legacy of Great Events in London

London has been shaped by the many festivals and celebrations held in its street, parks and exhibition buildings during the course of its history, amongst them the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the 2012 London Olympics.


Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, London, as pictured in the 'Builder', 1850. © RIBA Library Books and Periodicals Collection Stained Glass Gallery, Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, London, 1851. © RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections Olympic stadium, London, in 2011. © Wilson Yau

The venues of the 2012 London Olympics took up the important role of representing the London Olympics on screen and in print. Architecture was central; the completed buildings were taken as an early sign of success and to show the world that the city was prepared for the games. While construction timetables can be controlled, the idea of ‘legacy’ is much harder to quantify and sustain. The organisers claimed that the Olympics’  legacy  already started even before the games had begun, in the form of all the new infrastructure, green spaces and landmarks built in east London.

The Great Exhibition of 1851

Historians have made the Great Exhibition the pre-eminent symbol of the Victorian age

Looking at the long-term impact of a major international event can be seen in the creation of Albertopolis, the greatest legacy of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Like the Olympics, the exhibition was held to  bring together people of all nations in one place  peacefully  – but in this case for the purposes of industry, art and commerce. Commercially and critically, it was a success and the event is used as a historical marker: “ Historians have made the Great Exhibition the pre-eminent symbol of the Victorian age ” (Auerbach, p.1).


Royal Albert Hall, London, in 1970. © Edwin Smith / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Royal Albert Hall, London, in 1970.
© Edwin Smith / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Albertopolis is made up of the  educational institutions  of South Kensington, built using the large profit from the exhibition. They were established at different times over the course of nearly a hundred years and each was set up when an opportunity came up or in response to a perceived need in the cultural life of the nation. The impact of the Albert Hall, V&A, Natural History Museum, Imperial Institute and others places of learning nearby can be felt today 150 years later. Prince Albert’s plan to create a cultural hub came together after the 1851 and, as the display at the V&A shows, this idea is alive and continues to develop. Included in the display is a large watercolour from 1851, featuring Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace set in its original home in Hyde Park. This was the venue of the exhibition, which was built on time and was “ described in its own day as the Tenth Wonder of the World ” (Piggott, p.5). The Crystal Place is the symbol of the Great Exhibition and represents the birth of Albertopolis.

Buildings have lifespans

In a similar light, the impressive work of the  architects  of the Olympic Park and Village, amongst them Zaha Hadid, Populous, Allies & Morrison and HOK Sport, have been seen as the visual representations of the games beyond 2012. We can expect these images to be enduring, even if the buildings themselves perish or altered by plan or by other reasons. No doubt, with so many buildings one or two venues will feature more prominently than others in the forefront of popular memory as time elapses.

Model of Zaha Hadid Architects' 2012 London Olympic venue,
the Aquatics Centre, in legacy mode. 
© Mike Althorpe, 2012

In 1851, Paxton wrote a pamphlet entitled: ‘ What is to become of the Crystal Palace ?’ (Piggott, p.31). Paxton had wanted his iron and glass structure to be turned into a winter garden after the exhibition.  Despite years of difficulties it became a venue for other exhibitions and various forms of popular entertainment – even serving as the home of the Imperial War Museum for four years until 1924. With temporary stands and future uses considered, there has been a clear plan about what will happen to the Olympic venues after the games. But, like the Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition, their fate and what will be the real legacy of the Olympics will be determined by future events. The Crystal Palace was lost in a fire in 1936 and is now just a memory; a few stone balustrades and steps in Sydenham, the palace’s second and last site, are the only physical reminders of the Great Exhibition building. The exhibition’s real legacy is therefore something that grew afterwards over time, Albertopolis, and not an iconic building that fell victim to poor maintenance – 150 years should be enough time to judge what the legacy of the next Olympics will be.

References  (available from the British Architectural Library , RIBA):

  • Auerbach, Jaffrey A.  The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display Yale: Yale University, 1999
  • Piggott, J. R.  Palace of the People: The Crystal Palace at Sydenham 1854-1936 London: Hurst & Company, 2004
  • RIBA,  Albertopolis online exhibition , accessed 26 January 2012