The Crystal Palace, a vast demountable building designed by Joseph Paxton for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, London, was in many ways crucial in the development of architecture: it was the pinnacle of innovative metal structure, it revealed the exciting potential of efficient prefabrication, and it was an early demonstration of the modern doctrine that beauty can exist in the clear expression of materials and function. Altogether, it was one of the most noteworthy buildings of the nineteenth century.
The idea for a Great Exhibition came from the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, and was given impetus by Henry Cole, then an assistant keeper in the Public Records Office. His wide interests extended to the publication of The Journal of Design that encouraged artists to design for industrialized mass production and urged manufacturers to employ them. That, he believed, would raise the quality of everyday articles. Cole was elected to the society’s council in 1846, and the following year, with others, he successfully solicited Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, to accept the role of its president. Under Royal Charter, and spurred by the success of French industrial expositions since 1844, the society held Exhibitions of Art Manufactures from 1847 through 1849.
After visiting the exclusively French exhibition in Paris in 1849, Cole realized that an international show would inform British industry of progress (and commercial competition) elsewhere in the world. Prince Albert, convinced that “that great end to which all history points—the realization of the unity of mankind” was imminent, caught the vision. The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 was established to expedite a self-financing “large [exhibition] embracing foreign productions.” It was envisioned as “a new starting-point from which all nations will be able to direct their further exertions,” but it was at the same time an expression of British nationalism. Britain had led the world into the Industrial Revolution, and her outlook was smug, to say the least. The Great Exhibition would provide a vehicle to flaunt her industrial, military, and economic superiority and justify her colonialism.
The show was to have a display area of 700,000 square feet (66,000 square meters), much bigger than anything the French had managed. That was too large even for the intended venue in the courtyard of Somerset House, so it was decided to locate it in Hyde Park. An open competition for the design of a building for the “Great Exhibition of the Works of All Nations” attracted 245 entries from 233 architects, including 38 from abroad. The Commissioners’ Building Committee liked none of them; besides, it was unlikely that any could have been completed on
time. Having prepared its own plan for a large dome standing on a brick drum, the committee called for bids. The result was alarming: building materials alone would have devoured at least half of the available funds of £230,000. Anyway, the design was generally considered ugly, especially by the architects whose proposals bad been rejected.
Fox and Henderson and Company, a firm of contractors, engineers, and ironmasters, tendered a price for an alternative, based on a design by the gardener Joseph Paxton. In 1826 Paxton had been appointed head landscape gardener at Chatsworth, the Derbyshire estate of the sixth Duke of Devonshire. He built large conservatories there, including one in 1886–1840 for the giant water lily, Victoria regia. Paxton claimed that his design for the Great Exhibition building was inspired by the structure of that lily, whose cross ribs strengthened the main radial ribs.
Learning that the invited architects had been turned down, Paxton had sketched out his proposal on a sheet of blotting paper—romantic tradition says it was during a train journey—and through a lucky meeting with a mutual friend he was able to show it to Cole. The idea was simple: a modular structure of a single cross section, built from prefabricated metal components, could be repeated ad infinitum to produce a building of any size. Paxton promised Cole that he would have detailed designs ready within a fortnight. In fact, they were completed in nine days and passed to Fox and Henderson on 22 June 1850. By then, the provision of a building was becoming urgent. Paxton’s proposal had the desirable advantage of rapid construction; moreover, unlike the other schemes, it could later be demounted to leave Hyde Park relatively undisturbed. The commission accepted it; the only modification asked for was a vaulted transept so the building could contain without damage the large elm trees on the site.
The Crystal Palace, as it was soon dubbed, was a single space, 1,851 feet long and 456 wide (554 by 136 meters), rising by 20-foot (6-meter) increments across flanking tiered galleries to a 66-foot-high (20-meter) central nave. It was intersected in the middle by a 108-foot-high (32-meter) vaulted transept. The building covered 19 acres (7.6 hectares) of Hyde Park. A filigree of 330 slender, cast-iron columns and arcades supported its clear glass walls and roofs and the wrought-iron beams that carried the galleries, alternately 24 feet (7.2 meters) and 48 feet wide.
Due largely to Paxton’s consummate organizational skills, Fox and Henderson accomplished its construction between September 1850 and January 1851. The Birmingham glassmaking firm of Chance Brothers supplied almost 294,000 panes, which were fixed in a specially designed roof-glazing system based on economical 49-inch-wide (1.25-meter) sheets that determined the module for the entire design. Building work oil-site consisted mostly of assembling the 3,920 tons (3,556 tonnes) of cast-iron components that came from ninety different foundries throughout Britain, often cast less than a day before they were fixed. The accuracy obtained through prefabrication and the mechanical fixing dramatically reduced the proportion of nonproductive labor common to traditional construction methods. Cast-iron columns were strength-tested, and on-site milling and machine painting included miles of timber-glazing bars. The building was decorated in red, green, and blue, and the columns were brightened with yellow stripes. The Crystal Palace established internationally a style and a standard for exhibition pavilions, next at Cork (1852), then at Dublin and New York (both in 1853), and Munich (1854).
The Great Exhibition opened on 1 May 1851, with more than 13,000 exhibits from around the world. By the time it closed six months later, over 6.2 million people had visited it. Despite popular insistence that the building should remain, it was scheduled for dismantling. A consortium bought it and it was, under Paxton’s supervision, reerected in a modified form in a park designed by him at Sydenham Hill, southeast London. Reopened by Queen Victoria in June 1854, the Crystal Palace became a national center for exhibits of industry, art, architecture, and natural history, all held under the auspices of the Crystal Palace Company. Sporting events took place in the park from about 1857 and for twenty years after 1895 it became the venue for Football Association Cup finals. Motor racing followed in 1936.
In November of that year, the Crystal Palace was destroyed by fire. Only one terrace of the original park now survives, and even that is under threat. The Crystal Palace Partnership, with representatives of five London boroughs and private-sector groups, is undertaking a £150 million regeneration scheme for Crystal Palace Park that includes its “restoration,” a concert platform, modernization of the National Sports Centre, and a so-called new Crystal Palace on the surviving 12-acre (4.8-hectare) terrace. The latter, an insensitive proposal for a utilitarian building housing a twenty-screen cinema multiplex with restaurants, bars, and rooftop parking for a thousand cars, provoked local residents to launch the Crystal Palace Campaign in May 1997. A challenge to the scheme is being mounted in the High Court on the grounds that the Crystal Palace Act of 1990 provides that any building on the site should be “in the style and spirit of the former Crystal Palace.”