Contemporary Architecture

Joseph Paxton – The Crystal Palace:The Beginning of Iron and Glass Architecture

The Great Exhibition:London, 1851

  • A “Great Exhibit of the Works of Industry of All Nations”
  • The building was the epitome of England’s industry, vision, determination, wealth, technical knowledge, and powers of production.
Charles Dickens said of the project:
“Two parties in London, relying on the accuracy and good faith of certain ironmasters, glass-workers in the provinces, and of one master carpenter in London, bound themselves for a certain sum of money, and in the course of four months, to cover eighteen acres of ground with a building upwards of a third of a mile long (1851 feet- the exact date of the year) and some hundred and fifty feet broad.  In order to do this, the glass maker promised to supply, in the required time, nine hundred thousand square feet of glass (>400 tons).  The iron-master passed his word in like manner, to cast in due time 3300 iron columns; 34 miles of guttering tube2224 girders.  The carpenter undertook to get ready within the specific period 205 miles of sash-bar; flooring for a building of thirty-three millions of cubic feet; besides enormous quantities of wooden walling, louver work and partition.”
The Building Delivery Process
  • 01/1850 The Royal Commission, Chaired by Prince Albert
  • 03/13/50 Competition announced for temporary exhibition building
  • 240 entries, none chosen, instead committee offered it’s own design
  • A brick structure with an iron dome – dark, heavy, permanent
Fears Abound:
  • protectionists feared foreign goods
  • environmentalists feared destruction of elms
  • the press feared foreign visitors – Papists, thieves, & syphilitics

Problems with the Committee’s Design

  • 17 million bricks, 200ft dome, extensive foundations, a permanent structure
  • By 06/50 things looked bleak
Enter the “White Knight”: Joseph Paxton
  • founded newspaper, wrote books on  horticulture, wrote articles on greenhouse design
  • knew several people on Royal Commission
  • they found loophole to allow design submission

Architectural Conservatory:Prof. Richard Bradley , 1718

  • School of Botany at Cambridge
  • conformed to rules of arch., but considered welfare of plants.
  • glass dome, thin Corinthian columns., white tile walls
Great Conservatory: Paxton, 1836
  • Longest glass building in the world
  • 277’L x 123’ W  x 67’ H.
  • Laminated wood beams,  cast iron columns along the nave, ridge & furrow glazing system
Great Wall at Chatsworth; Paxton, 1848
  • 330’ long enclosure of an exist. masonry wall
Victoria Regia House: Paxton, 1850
  • cultivating a growing Victoria Regia Lilly from S. America
  • leaves supported by thin cantilevers
  • first “flat roof” installation of ridge & furrow glazing system
  • two tilted 49” glass panes + sash equals 81”, c/c.
  • 24’ girders + deep gutters + trussed Paxton gutter
Victoria Regia House:Gutter Details
  • external & interior waterways
  • change of depth
  • trusses with “pretensioning”
For the Crystal Palace, Paxton…..

  • promised a full set of drawings in 10 days based on a sketch during a RR board meeting,
  • he & estate staff produced drawings in seven days – almost exact to what was actually built

After Paxton’s First Sketches Were Accepted….

  • Fox Henderson & Co. undertook calculations and the prep of detailed drawings.
  • bid of £150, 000 – if left standing
  • bid of £79,800 if leased
  • now the building committee needed to approve the plans
Paxton Leaked Design to Illustrated London News:
  • cheaper, quicker, assemble/ disassemble, no brick, stone, mortar, light foundation, day lighting, no interior walls, 25% greater area
  • committee was furious
  • public overwhelmingly positive
On 07/15….

  • Royal Commission rejected Building Committee’s design & accepted Paxton’s lower bid
  • added transept to save the elms
Construction Drawings:
  • Fox – 7weeks, 18hrs/ day to produce drawings
  • as soon as drawings were finished, Henderson set up production schedule
  • small crew installed drainpipes & light foundations

  • Overall Building: 1848’ x 456’
  • Nave: 72’W x 64’ H
  • Transcept: 408’ x 104’ H
Cast Iron in Buildings:
Crystal Palace
  • 3,300 columns from 14 1/2 to 20 ft tall
  • 34 miles of guttering tube below grade
  • 2,224 girders
Cast Iron Applications in Buildings
  • 1796 – Shrewesbury Warehouse
  • 1809 – cast iron dome in Paris
  • 1849 – cast iron facades by J. Bogardus
  • 1851 – Crystal Palace
  • 1855 – Bessemer Process for steel making
  • 1884 – Home Insurance Building, Chicago
Cast Iron in the Crystal Palace
  • Column ends were lathe turned
  • Canvas gasket dipped in white lead at the joints
  • 3’ deep collar with connecting lip
  • Girders secured with wrought iron wedges
Strength Testing:
  • several iron bridges had failed in the 1840’s
  • for public assurance: marching soldiers and rolling cannon balls
  • for the engineers: hydraulic press tested 214 girders with 24’ span
  • tested at 15T and 22T
  • first private testing laboratories & concept of factor of safety

  • 600,000 cu ft of wood milled into >200 miles of gutters and sash bars
  • milling operation input rough beams and output finished profiled gutters
  • dipped in paint trough and run across fixed brushes to remove excess
  • Chance Bros. & Co. won the contract
  • largest sheet ever made, 10” x 49” from the cylinder process
  • this contract equaled 1/3 of England’s total prior production
  • suffered from excessive light and heat gain
  • canvas was stretched from ridge to ridge with drain holes over the furrow
  • sprayed with water for cooling
  • also included a mechanical ventilation system


  • laminated wood beams reinforced with iron rods
  • sloping sash bars for the glazing system
Time & Budget
  • 9/26/50: First column on site and columns placed just 18 hrs after casting
  • 01/51: Structural frame completed
  • Bid: £79,800
  • Change Orders: £27,980 + £35,000
  • Total Cost: £142,780

The Exhibition:

  • By 9/25/51: £451,000 in receipts
  • On 10/7/51: almost 100,000 guests
  • On 10/11/51: closed to the public
  • On 5/12/52: Sold for £70,000
After the Crystal Palace
  • Lyndhurst by Lord & Burnham
  • Hothouses for the millions
Horeau & Turner: 
  • Prize Winners for Exhibition
  • Paris & London proposals, Paris executed
  • Train stations, other exhibitions, NY etc.

Hot Houses for the Millions 

  • Residential Greenhouses
  • Winter Garden in the Anglo-Japanese Style
Glass House by Bruno Taut
  • “Expressionist” architecture
  • Built at the Cologne Werkbund
  • Concrete lamellar structure
  • Glass ceilings, walls, floors, tiles


  • professional A/E jealousy and fear
  • shift from A/E to design/ build
  • concern that modular buildings could not be suited to individual sites/ needs
  • search for an appropriate aesthetic
Influences on Today’s Building Practices
  • structural frame
  • standard rolled shapes
  • standard details
  • strength testing
  • prefabrication: assembly/ disassembly and published with enough detail to allow others to build
  • project management

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