The Crystal Palace




The Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, London, in 1851. © RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections

Image: The Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, London, in 1851
© RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections

The Crystal Palace 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.…I could not tear my eyes from the spectacle of its triumphant harmony.

Le Corbusier in Architectural Review, February 1937, p.72

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-19th century. The exhibition was a success, but Paxton and his building were often not so well-regarded until the 20th 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.

The Crystal Palace and its ground, Sydenham, London, in 1854. © RIBA Library Drawings and Archives CollectionsExterior of the Crystal Palace, Sydenham, London, in the 1930s. © Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs CollectionThe Crystal Palace, Sydenham, London: the crossing (left) and the English Medieval Court (right). © Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

The move to Sydenham

Plan of the Crystal Palace and Park, Sydenham, London, 1850s. © RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections

Image: Plan of the Crystal Palace and Park, Sydenham,
London, in the 1850s (The Crystal Palace is in red, top)
© RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections

When the Great Exhibition was over, the Hyde Park 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, despite the fact it was intended only as a temporary structure. The Crystal Palace was dismantled, shipped and re-erected in Sydenham on the outskirts of London, its second and last site. The Crystal Palace at Sydenham was not a just a transplanted building; when it was re-erected in south London between 1852 and 1854, 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.

Destruction of the Crystal Palace


Crystal Palace, Sydenham, London, in ruins following the fire of 30 November 1936. © RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Image: Crystal Palace, Sydenham, London, in ruins following the fire of 30 November 1936
© RIBA Library Photographs Collection

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 

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, much of the Crystal Palace was destroyed in a fire that took hold on the 30 November 1936. The surviving water towers were demolished during World War II to remove a potential landmark for enemy aircraft. 

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.

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

Ian Leith in Delamotte’s Crystal Palace, 2005, p.12


Available from the British Architectural Library

  1. All images from RIBApix
  2. Leith, I., 2005. Delamotte’s Crystal Palace. Swindon: English Heritage
  3. McKean, J., 1994. Crystal Palace: Joseph Paxton and Charles Fox. London: Phaidon
  4. Shand, M., Crystal Palace as structure and precedent. Architectural Review, 1937 February, pp. 65-72

Article by Wilson Yau, British Architectural Library, RIBA, 2014