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  • Writer's pictureDavid

Lingzhao Xuan - China's "crystal palace" in the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City - or the Palace Museum as it is now known there is a curious and rather remarkable building. It is unusual for many reasons - it is actually an aquarium, it is both Chinese and Western, it was never completed and the last construction of the Empire following hundreds of years of rule. Lingzhao Xuan translates as 'auspiscious pond'.

Remarkably little is known about this structure. I have managed to piece together some information but archive information is very limited and most of my thinking has come from examination of the structure itself.

The palace is located in a courtyard in the top right of this photograph. It is built on the site of the Prolonging Happiness Palace some time after a fire. It has various names - the 'Crystal Palace' - the 'Western Building' the 'Water Palace'.

We know that the building of the palace was at the instigation of the Empress Dowager Longyu but the idea may have come from the last Imperial Eunuch Zang Lande - he seemed to be an enthusiastic advocate thereafter for more personal reasons. Zang is well known for having become wealthy off the back of his employers but it was becoming more difficult to do so. The refurbishment of the Yanxi Palace on the approval of the Dowager Empress gave him the opportunity to spend extensively.

Some authors have suggested the iron structure is Chinese in origin but I am 99% certain it is not. We know that the primary steel structure was made using Dorman Long Steel (makers of the Tyne and Sydney Harbour Bridge but primarily steel suppliers). The ceramic tiles came from an identified German maker although not one of great renown. The limestone is certainly local in origin. It is the cast iron itself which is most mysterious.

The concept of the building was quite remarkable - the young emperor could walk in at ground level. above his head water would cascade from the top of the building into a surrounding pool dug into the ground. In the pond giant carp would swim. What was particularly exciting was that he would be able to walk down into the pond and immerse himself in a different realm. Because of large thick glass panels he would be ale to see into the pool itself. Perforated pipes cover the upper levels like a giant water fountain might.

The construction of the building commenced in 1909 and was halted in 1911. We know the Dowager Empress in April 1910 confirmed 100,000 from the privy purse to purchase the glass for the structure as reported in the North China Daily News. We do not know who designed the building itself or the iron structure which sits at its core.

While I have no doubt given its architectural departure from more traditional construction around it that its design would have been endorsed at the highest level the detailed technical design and execution was not Chinese to my eyes - let me explain why.

Such iron structures have 'signatures' - the firm manufacturing the architectural cast ironwork, the manner in which it is built with structural steelwork, the fixing details, the pattern making style and casting methods evident in the castings them selves all tell a story - an iron 'fingerprint' if you like.

By this point in time the design and application of such ironwork for building structures was well established in the West. The detailing we see here is not the work of a designer unfamiliar with the materials but rather one very much immersed (bad pun) in that world. The steel framework, the decorative cast iron, the zinc ornament and the water pipework was designed as one and the execution is certainly European - a remote chance American and exhibits traits of British ironfounders.

So in the running for me are Scotland, England, France, Germany, Austria or Belgium. The tradition of ornamental zinc work is most common in France and Belgium but not unknown in other countries.

There are some other pieces of evidence. Having tested the threads on some of the fixings they appear to be metric threads.

The repairs to casting deformities in the columns use red lead putty - a commonly British technique. Evidence of linseed oil red lead coating is still seen across the structure.

The structure is clearly prefabricated and the structure is pre-marked in places where steel components face up to each other to ensure a match.

A newspaper report of 1911 noted positive progress and that the palace was to be electrically lit (!!!) to create an air of enchantment - iron - water and electricity - an interesting combination.....

It also suggested that the health and wellbeing of the young Emperor was of paramount importance - the palace to provide fresh air and a positive outdoor environment, and one of stimulation.

It came close to completion - no final paint coats were applied, nor the plumbing entirely installed. The glass arrived but remains in storage. Ceramics were in part installed and much of the marble put in place. The installation of the marble seems to have been done independently which would make sense locally.

The castings have no makers marks visible and not recognisably identifiable except for one motif which may possibly be coincidental.

The geometric motif on the column I recognised having seen it somewhere. Oddly it was on a casting in my hometown of Stirling on a column made by the Saracen Foundry of Walter Macfarlane (see below). It is the only time I have seen this motif on ironwork.

The last emperor of China abdicated on 12 February 1912 but it is thought that work on the palace had slowed to a stop before that.

Carp for the aquarium ?

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