Crystal Palace: an ode to Modernism and Structural History


Nestled in South London, with endless views over the City, Crystal Palace is comprised of five London boroughs and has a distinctive identity all of its own. Development began in the 19th century, when the arrival of the Crystal Palace Exhibition saw the area transition from Sydenham Hill into the Crystal Palace we’re so familiar with today.

While the architecture of residential and industrial buildings showcases the area’s heritage, with Victorian villas joining new builds, it was the Crystal Palace itself that sparked interest from architects all over the world and arguably welcomed a whole new era of architectural design.

What Was the Crystal Palace?

After a successful period in Hyde Park, The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations required a new home. During the first World’s Fair, it celebrated the best of modern industrial technology and design and housed a wide range of curated exhibitions, ranging from the Tempest prognosticator to the C.C. Hornung’s cast-iron piano frame, the Trophy telescope and the Koh-i-Noor, the world’s largest known diamond.

Drawing visitors from across the globe, the popularity of The Great Exhibition moved to Sydenham Hill, where it would remain until 1936. Created from prefabricated materials in Hyde Park, the original structure was dismantled and transported to its new site, ready to welcome exhibitors for decades to come. However, the structure was not simply re-erected in its existing form. Instead, it was enhanced and extended to create an (even more) impressive home for the world-renowned Great Exhibition.

The Crystal Palace at Sydenham Hill

Constructed predominantly from cast iron and glass, the Crystal Palace was a celebration of modern architecture. Designed by Joseph Paxton, with assistance from a structural engineer, Charles Fox, the building stretched 1848 feet and reached 454 feet at its widest point.

At three times the size of St Paul’s Cathedral, the sheer expanse of the building was a triumph in itself. Yet it was not merely its size that consolidated the Crystal Palace as a ground-breaking ode to architecture and engineering.

Using the sheet glass method, Paxton’s Crystal Palace featured the largest ever glass area seen in building construction. Indeed, visitors to The Great Exhibit were in awe of the building itself, quite as much as the exquisite exhibits it housed.

A New Era of Design

Although Paxton’s triumph as a horticulturist, garden designer and builder was beyond repute, the Crystal Palace was, undoubtedly, his magnum opus. Taking cues from his experience at Chatsworth, most notably Lily House, the designer sought to recreate the modular construction on a larger scale.

Using the latest cast plate glass techniques, the modular design of what would become the Crystal Palace took shape. The planning and construction phases were completed in just nine months. It was, perhaps, thanks to Paxton’s audacious design that the previously slow-moving process was able to accelerate and The Great Exhibition was able to open on time.

Not only did the Crystal Palace encapsulate the ‘form follows function’ idea that became synonymous with modernism in architecture, but it also embodied the triumphs that the exhibition sought to celebrate: modern industrial technology and design. Using new methods and processes to create previously unseen designs, Paxton ensured the exhibitions within the Crystal Palace would be housed in a structure that, itself, symbolised the triumphant wonder and possibility that modern design, technology and engineering presented.

Indeed, the last-minute design modification that saw a high, barrel-vaulted transept added at 90 degrees to the main gallery consolidated a triumph of man and technology over nature. Until this addition, numerous large elm trees were set to be demolished. Under Paxton’s instruction, however, the original design was modified to facilitate their presence and they were able to remain a central element of The Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace itself. Once again, the father of modern architecture used his creativity and expertise to perfectly articulate the mastery of engineering and technology in the modern era.

Crystal Palace: Today

Following its relocation to the new Sydenham Hill site, the Crystal Palace remained open to visitors until the building was tragically devastated by a fire in 1936. While the last vestige of the Palace, the North Tower, remained standing, it was finally demolished in 1941.

Despite the sad loss of this eponymous structure, its impact undoubtedly lives on. Not only did Paxton’s design lend its name to the area in which it resided for the majority of its life, but the ingenuity, concepts and materials used to create this architectural masterpiece were also reused, modified and elevated in later years by Crystal Palace architects and designers from all across the globe. Originally taking its cues from British buildings and the Chicago School, the Crystal Palace would become one of the most memorable buildings in the world; both upon its creation and amongst today’s architects and designers.

The Crystal Palace Lives On

While plans to rebuild the structure have been introduced since 1936 onwards, they have yet to be sanctioned or approved. Despite this, the hallmarks of the Crystal Palace can be seen in the architecture of the City and across the whole of the UK and the world.

Today, the evolution of technology is encapsulated in modernist architecture. From curtain walls, ribbon windows and reinforced concrete to minimalism and open plan interiors; much of the innovation and concepts can be traced back to Paxton’s Crystal Palace, as well as to the later influences of Philip Johnson, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier.

As property owners aim to echo the exquisite design and innovative engineering that the Crystal Palace perpetuated, it’s easy to see the impact high-tech architecture has had and continues to have. Standing as an ever-evolving reminder of our history, there’s no doubt that the architectural triumphs rooted in 1853 will continue to be celebrated, recreated and elevated in the future.

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