The Brits Who Built The Modern World

The Crystal Palace

Built

1850

Location

London, United Kingdom

The Crystal Palace, one of the most influential pieces of architecture, was designed not by an architect but by a gardener, Joseph Paxton, with the assistance of Charles Fox from the contractor Fox Henderson. There were 245 submissions for the competition to design a building on the grounds of Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, but none were satisfactory, giving Paxton the chance to present his idea. 

one of the great monuments of nineteenth-century architecture

His design came to be more famously known by its nickname the ‘Crystal Palace’. It was prefabricated, assembled onsite and used large quantities of metal (iron) and glass – it could easily sound like a High Tech building from today rather than the mid-19 th century. The exhibition was a success, but Paxton and his building were often not so well-regarded until the 20 th century, when Modernists such as Le Corbusier reassessed this innovative and seemingly simple building made of manufactured parts.  

Construction started in August 1850. One size of glass was chosen and this in turn determined the size of the repetitive units. Paxton’s prefabricated modular design enabled a low cost and quick build.  In just nine months 19 acres of Hyde Park were under glass. Its tall barrel-vault transept was crossed by a long flat-roof nave. The building and exhibition was opened to great fanfare on 1 May 1851 by Queen Victoria.

If the Crystal Palace had survived it might have become a national icon, much as the Eiffel Tower did in France

Despite the fact it was intended only as a temporary building, after the exhibition it was dismantled, shipped and re-erected in Sydenham on the outskirts of London. The Crystal Palace at Sydenham was not a just a transplanted building; when it was re-erected in south London, the rebuilt structure used twice the glass it had at Hyde Park to accommodate an increase in size and the addition of a barrel-vault transept at each of the two ends of the nave. It also sat in new landscaped gardens and flanked by two large water towers designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Until the disastrous fire of 1936, the Crystal Palace for over eighty years was one of London’s major venues for events and exhibitions and was a tourist attraction. The loss was felt locally and internationally – Le Cobusier lamented its destruction.

Before and after the Great Exhibition of 1851:

Hyde Park was the first site for the Crystal Palace, but with the Great Exhibition over, the site had to return back to its previous green state. Faced with the potential loss of his building, Paxton set up a company to find it a new home. In the end it was rebuilt in Sydenham, which was the building’s second and last site until the fire of 30 November 1936. There are no visible signs today of the building at Hyde Park or of the mature elms around which construction had to carefully avoid damaging. 

At Sydenham there are just the Grade II listed remains of the garden terraces, and the vaulted subway that once connected the Crystal Palace to the Crystal Palace (High Level) station, now demolished. But south London could once again see the return of this landmark. In October 2013 it was announced that the ZhongRong Group intended to rebuild the Crystal Palace as part of a £500 million project.

imagesCrystal Palace, Hyde Park, London: view across the SerpentineCrystal Palace and its grounds at Sydenham, LondonCrystal Palace, Sydenham, London: roof detail and the overgrown steps of the upper terraceCrystal Palace, Sydenham, London, in ruins following the devastating fire of 30 November 1936Crystal Palace, Sydenham, London: the north transept

QUOTES ABOUT the crystal palace

“…one of the great monuments of nineteenth-century architecture.”
“…I could not tear my eyes from the spectacle of its triumphant harmony.”
Le Corbusier in Architectural Review , February 1937, p.72

“If the Crystal Palace had survived it might have become a national icon, much as the Eiffel Tower did in France.”
Delamotte’s Crystal Palace  , 2005, p.12

“It stood to remind us that we did contribute something to the pioneer efforts of the Modern Movement.”
J.M. Richards in Architectural Review , January 1937, p.1 

 

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