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Albertopolis: A Physical and Philosophical Review

Part 2 Dissertation 2010
Victoria Rice
Liverpool John Moores University Liverpool | UK
Due to the close association with Prince Albert, Albertopolis is a nickname given to an area in South Kensington. Clear comparisons can be made between the original urban proposals solicited by Prince Albert in the 1850s and the final scheme. It is the series of events, people and changes made to the original vision which were discussed within this dissertation.

The intellectual concept of Albertopolis derived from an idea, the ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ in 1851. The exhibition yielded unpredicted profits of over £180,000. Following the acquisition of this surplus, Prince Albert concluded that this money should be re-invested in activities associated with the Great Exhibition. This resulted in the manifestation of the second Intellectual Concept, and the money was spent on purchasing land within South Kensington for cultural and educational use.

In the early 1850s Prince Albert solicited urban schemes for the estate to be drawn. Plans and drawings were submitted by C. R. Cockerell, T. L. Donaldson, the government architect James Pennethorne and Henry Cole in collaboration with Richard Redgrave. Prince Albert also submitted a scheme in conjunction with a written memorandum.

Other events such as The Great International Exhibition held in 1862 and the International Exhibitions of 1871-74 sought to further enhance the garden’s geometry and occupancy within the area. It was however, Albert’s death in 1861 which deprived the area of strong guidance and no doubt contributed to the consequent decline of its fortunes.

Albertopolis has changed and the original urban design intention of the Prince, including symmetry and geometry has been obliterated over a period of time. It has, however, achieved its primary aim which was to build a huge scientific technological complex in South Kensington which would keep Britain at the peak of industrial world power specialising in art and science. This scheme was set to influence many cultural quarters to come but due to its range in diversity it was, and still is one of the leading intellectual centres of the world.

Victoria Rice

An urban district that elicits both praise and puzzlement by knowledgeable visitors to London is that with a centre of gravity at the axis mundi of the Albert Hall and a southern honorific wall – the Natural History Museum.

Praise is for the richness of this ‘super block’, its scale according with other cities… Barcelona, Berlin, Milan, Paris … that define the robust principles of the European city.

Puzzlement arises because of the higilty pigilty nature of the whole, the apparently haphazard way in which pieces relate – “very English” I have heard, but to respond, “adequate complexity”.

The literature on this ‘Albertopolis’ is scant and the work of Victoria Rice does much to remedy this. Her Dissertation provides the spine to what should become a seminal book on this very English affair with the European city.

The Dissertation traces the early 19th Century origins, passes by the 1851 Great Exhibition and covers the likes of Cockerell’s layout of 1853, a Neo-Classical tour de force. A National Gallery is mooted and in 1855, Semper prepared an edifice - unbuilt – for that.

A plan on Page 52 superimposes the once central Horticultural Gardens and the axis from the Albert Memorial to the Natural History Museum onto the current palimpsest. The many pieces of the jigsaw since inception are usefully set out on Page 95 in a series of maps.

A schedule on Page 90, placing Albertopolis in international comparison with seven ‘cultural quarters’, indicates how world-centred London once was.

The author concludes that, “It (Albertopolis) has achieved its primary aim, which was to build a huge scientific technological complex in South Kensington which would keep Britain at the peak of industrial world power specialising in art and science.”

This is an exceptional study, full of unpublished material, the Appendices dripping with fertile sources.

“Adequate complexity” accords with the intellectual maturity of our time – the diversity of evolution with no ‘on high’. This Dissertation, excavating this marvel of South Kensington, gives urban flesh to that truth.

Professor Doug Clelland, 19 July 2009 (Liverpool)

Prof Doug Clelland
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