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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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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Contemporary Architecture


  • 180m / 591 ft , 41 storey
  • Completion- 2004







Design Concepts:


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Contemporary Architecture

Richard Rogers – 88 Wood Street


  • ARCHITECT: Richard Rogers Partnership
  • Date: 1993-1997
  • Construction: concrete frame with steel bracing, glass curtain wall
  • first City building completed by RRP since Lloyd’s of London in 1986
  • At 4 metres x 3 metres and weighing in at 800 kg (1,760 lbs) each, the floor-to-ceiling height triple-glazed, laminated glazing units are some of the world’s largest and contain internal blinds adjusted by photoelectric cells which automatically adjust to suit the climate.


The 33,000 m² building is arranged as three linked blocks of office accommodation that step up from eight storeys on Wood Street, where the context includes two listed buildings, to fourteen and finally eighteen storeys to the west, responding to the taller built topography towards London Wall


  • Industrial aesthetics, but in a slightly different way than Llyod’s London
  • Structure and equipment as ornament
  • Use of metals in façade
  • ‘Open expression’ …..but with a control, unlike Llyod’s and Pompiduo
  • Concept of ‘machine design’ taken forward but with a different logic

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Contemporary Architecture

Richard Rogers – National Assembly of Wales


  • ARCHITECT: Richard Rogers and Partners
  • INAUGURAL: 2 August 2006
  • LOCATION: Cardiff Bay Wales, London
  • USE: Assembly Building of Welsh or The Senedd (Senate)

Design Specifications:

  • To be an “exemplar” building in terms of sustainability
  • Creating an easily accessibility
  • Application of renewable technologies
  • Minimize energy consumption and waste
  • Life span of 100 years

About the building:

  • Transparent form of the building
  • Democratic values of openness and participation
  • Thermal mass of the plinth
  • Public spaces elevated on a slate-clad plinth
  • Roof, the most significant visual impact.
  • Wales looking with confidence to its future
  • Materials: rough slate, smooth concrete, steel, glass and timber
  • Essentially a series of shallow domes, it ripples its way out to sea
  • “wind funnel” that both ventilates and helps to daylight the chamber
  • Circular debating chamber is a lofty dome, lined inside with aluminium tubes and with a glittering light-reflector at its apex

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