Contemporary Architecture

Joseph Paxton – Crystal Palace – Detailed Analysis

  • Time: 1850-51
  • Location: London,England

As a product of industrial processes of fabrication and assembly, Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace was one of the most Innovative buildings of the 19th century. It was instantly regarded as an icon of modernity, and many of its achievements remain unequalled to this day.

Some features:
  • Designed and constructed in less than eight months
  • Was at the time the largest enclosure ever built
  • Creating an artificial environment of huge dimensions wrapped in an ineffably thin, transparent envelope
  • Conceived as a temporary building, it stood in Hyde Park for only a year and was then dismantled as quickly as it had been built – a spectacular but fleeting achievement.
  • The idea for a Great Exhibition celebrating peace, individual prosperity and free trade – all viewed through the lens of the British Empire,grew out of the Royal Society of Arts, whose patron was Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria.
  • ln early 1850, the Royal Commission formed to oversee the project launched a design and build competition for a 74,350sq. m (800,000sq. ft) building with a budget of £100,000 to be completed in just 15 months.
  • The competition documents explicitly stated that any cheap mode of construction will be fully considered’, Although hundreds of schemes were submitted, the members of the Commission could not agree on a winner and decided to design the building themselves.
  • The result bore all the hallmarks of a committee effort and, designed to be built of some 17 million bricks, it clearly would be unable to meet the prescribed budget and timetable.
Building In Glass
  • The project was rescued by Joseph Paxton, a gardener with 20 years of experience building glasshouses. His most notable achievement up to that time was the Great Stove, completed in 1840, at Chatsworth in Derbyshire, where he was head gardener. Many of his innovations on that project would be applied directly to the building for the Great Exhibition, albeit on a much larger scale.
  • In June 1851 Paxton learned from friends on the Royal Commission of their difficulties in arriving at a satisfactory design and convinced them to let him submit an alternative, Collaborating with Chance Brothers and engineering contractors Fox Henderson & Co., and using the systems which he had developed on his previous glass-houses, Paxton’s was the only bid to meet the restrictions of budget and timetable, which by now had been reduced to eight months.
  • To save time and money – and to increase precision Paxton developed a steam-powered machine to standardize fabrication of the wooden sash bars which were designed to incorporate grooves for gathering condensation internally.
  • In collaboration with glassmaker Robert Lucas Chance, sheets of glass were made which were 1,2 m (4 ft) long but a mere 2mm (1/13 in) thick and extremely light As the largest sheets ever produced, this glass conformed to Paxton’s concept of the 1.2-m (4-ft) module, and its light weight enabled him greatly to reduce the size of the glazing sashes and supporting strucure. Structure was further lightened by his ridge-and-furrow glazing system which reduced the span of the sash bars by running them crosswise from ridge to furrow instead of lengthwise.

The Process of Construction

  • Two weeks after Paxton’s tender for the building was accepted, Fox Henderson began work on site. The detailed design, fabrication and assembly of the building proceeded at a breakneck pace.
  • The project was hailed as the first architectural application of Adam Smith’s principle of the division of labour.
  • In startling contrast to the architectural ethos of the day, the building was not conceived as a form, but instead as a process.
  • Like the railways, which were the focus of so much engineering innovation in the 19th century, it was a formally indeterminate, dynamic, open-ended system made from a standardized kit of parts.
  • Every component was designed to conform to Paxton’s 1.2-m (4-ft) planning module. To reduce the number of components and lighten the construction, each element was designed to do more than one job glazing sash bars doubled as gutters; hollow cast iron columns as rainwater pipes; and the site hoarding was subsequently laid as floorboards.
  • Components were fabricated in workshops throughout Britain on assembly lines, with each labourer described by the architectural critic Matthew Digby Wyatt as “acting precisely as the various portions of a well-devised machine, skilled in his own department, profoundly ignorant in others”.
  • Building elements were transported to London by rail and delivered to site where they were erected almost instantly so that stockpiling was minimized.
  • The scale of components was broken down so that nothing weighed over a ton and the building could be assembled largely by manpower, with the occasional aid of horses.
  • The 22.8-m (74.ft) span of the central vaulted aisle was achieved by iron and timber semicircular ribs, which were fully assembled on the ground and hoisted ingeniously at an angle in order to clear the slightly narrower internal width of the vault.
  • Special equipment was designed by Fox Henderson to speed site assembly. Ingenious wheeled trolleys which ran on the Paxton gutters as rails eliminated the need for scaffolding for the glaziers. Using the trolleys, a team of 80 men was able to fix 18000 panes of glass in one December 1850, there were 2260 labourers on site working in tightly co-ordinated sequences of operations.
  • This new dry construction, in which components fabricated remotely were simply assembled on site – was fast and safe compared with conventional construction practices, and was exhilarating for both the labourers and the public alike. The construction of the building became a public spectacle, attracting large numbers of onlookers and daily coverage in the press, which dubbed it the ‘Crystal Palace’.
  • The construction process. which organized men, machines and material on a vast scale, became a vivid public demonstration of the logical efficiencies of time, rate and motion that would subsequently inspire the assembly lines of Henry Ford. Because of its transparency and the clarity of its systems, the construction of the Crystal Palace became a celebration of the power of industry far more sophisticated than the Great Exhibition itself.
  • Just six months after work had commenced on site and four months after the first cast iron column was erected, the Crystal Palace was completed and handed over to the Royal Commission for the installation of the exhibition displays. On 1 May 1851, the Great Exhibition was opened by Queen Victoria and was an enormous success, attracting over 6 million visitors in just five months.
  • In addition to making a substantial profit, the exhibition gave birth to Ihe idea of large-scale public entertainment, ushered in the era of the consumer and spawned a new building type in which goods of all kinds were displayed and sold- the modern department store.
  • Incorporating existing mature trees in Hyde Park within its vaulted transept, the delicate glazed enclosure created a new experience, dissolving the distinction between interior and exterior space, and between art and nature.
  • The Crystal Palace also fuelled a debate about the distinction between Engineering and Architecture.
  • Considered a fine example of engineering practicalities and processes but not beautiful,the building was disowned by the  architectural profession.
  • The Great Exhibition closed, as planned, in October 1851. The dismantling of the Crystal Palace in 1852 was as rapid and remarkable as its erection, bringing to a close its brief but glorious life which had so captured the public imagination.
  • The components were purchased by a new company headed by Joseph Paxton who, after making substantial design modifications, reassembled the building on a site in South London, in an area now known as Crystal Palace.It took two years to complete and was used for concerts and miscellaneous exhibitions, though it was never a popular or economic success. The building finally burned to the ground in 1936.

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