The Crystal Palace
During the 1800’s Great Britain’s empire stretched around the world, and with raw materials easily available to them this way, they inevitably began refining and manufacturing all stages of many new machines and other goods, distributing locally and globally. However, despite being the central ‘workshop of the world,’ Britain was not producing the highest quality of merchandise. When comparing factory-made products made in England to surrounding countries, most notably France, those products could not compare as far as craftsmanship and sometimes, simply innovation. It was suggested by Prince Albert that England host a sort of free-for-all technological exposition to bring in outside crafts into the country and also show their national pride.
These planners supported free trade, thinking that if local business was exposed to foreign-made goods, they could incorporate those new ideas into their own goods, increasing their worth. Though originally intending to invite only neighboring countries to this exposition, the plan soon escalated to include the global environment. As organization and sponsorship was planned out, the matter of where to host such a large and ongoing event arose. Ideally, it was to take place in London, to sort of show off the best of the country and impress in-coming visitors. The problem was that London was already built up and filled in, and little open space remained for the needed time period. It was decided soon that a portion of Hyde Park would provide the needed location, so it looked as though the problem of a site had been solved. However, there were many that were opposed to the plan. In general, foreign imports coming in such great quantities could undermine British industry. More specifically, the site itself was questioned. Though the park offered enough space, the British were very protective of their parks
“The Parks committee thought that the fair would lower property values of the highest portion of town, as well as permanently “disfigure” the natural area”. (1)
Amongst the criticisms, the committee still had to plan a structure to hold the event.
“The idea was to incorporate a building that could be easily be built
and taken down both constructively and economically. Most ideas
involved a long, one-story building made of brick. The problem
was that it looked far too solid difficult to remove later and it might
be even harder to light- not to mention that it probably could not
be built in time. Further debates and redrafting delayed the project
even further.” (1)
Joseph Paxton, a prominent garden-architect, working in conjunction with engineers Fox and Henderson Paxton submitted their idea. Although their design was entered late it was almost instantly adopted. It was so cost-effective; the fair’s planning committee had to accept his proposal. The overall design resembled a greenhouse, as he had grown up planning gardens. The scheme for the building called for glass and iron to be the primary building materials. This idea was revolutionary; it was the first building to be almost entirely out of iron and glass. Which also held up the idea for exhibition in the first place. What better way to show off for the world with a building no one has seen the likes of before?
“Iron manufactures produced three thousand three hundred iron columns, thirty
miles of guttering tube, two thousand two hundred and twenty four girders.
The glass workers put together nine hundred thousand square feet of glass,
weighing more than four hundred tons.” (4)
The use of glass solved the concern of proper lighting needed; it was a bit of surprise to most people because it was considered unsafe. No one had ever seen this before. Paxton and his engineers had to create something that was new yet held on to the old.
“The Crystal Palace could not have been more simple or direct, yet it’s historical
overtones are inescapable: its modular layout and structure were a reflection of
the medieval bay system; and in expanding a greenhouse to visionary dimensions,
the builders appear to have turned to the format of the English cathedral – a long,
low, squared off, multi-aisled, stepped massing, into which a somewhat higher
barrel-vaulted transept was inserted to incorporate a huge living elm tree.” (2)
Since the material was inexpensive and readily available the plan was embraced by the contractors, mostly on the merit that the sections of the building were all pre-fabricated modules, able to be built anywhere. After each portion of the building was designed and built, the portions would be shipped to the park’s site and installed to the base already formed there.
The pre-fabrication methods sped up of the erection, which amazed many people. The structure in so many ways defined what the project was all about. Allowing new technologies and materials to redefine the way people built, designed and ultimately lived.
Paxton wanted people to even let people in free once the exposition officially opened, but these idea was not even considered by anyone but him. He valued invention over beauty, but tried to show that invention could even redefine aesthetics. The plan apparently worked, and the media dubbed the building, “The Crystal Palace.”
1- Trachtenberg, Marvin. “Architecture – From Prehistory to Post-Modernism/ The Western Tradition” New York: Abrams, 1986
2- Mignot, C. “Architecture of the Nineteenth Century in Europe” New York: Rizzoli,
3- Middleton, R and D. Watkin. “Neo-Classical and 19th Century Architecture”
New York: Abrams, 1980
4- Collins, P. “Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture” London: Faber and
The Crystal Palace
By Chris Fox
Word Count: 920