Essential Architecture-  London

Crystal Palace


Joseph Paxton


London, (then Sydenham)


1851, moved 1852, burnt 1936




Modular cast iron and glass Floor area of 770,000 sq ft.,1851 ft long, 450 ft wide. 


Exhibition hall
The project took almost 2½ years to come to fruition and it’s leading light was Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, Prince Consort. In 1848 he placed a proposal before British Parliament to set up a self supporting exhibition of the products of British Industry. However, Albert cannot be credited with inventing the concept of an Industrial Exhibition as the formula had already been successfully employed in England, but most particularly in France, on many prior occasions. At the end of the 18th century the Marquis d’Aveze – Commissioner of the Royal Manufactories of the Gobelins, of Sèvres and of the Savonnerie initiated the first of what was to become a series of Expositions which culminated in the highly successful French Industrial Exposition of 1844. After the success of the 1844 Exposition proposals were put to Parliament detailing the benefits such an Exhibition held in England would have on commerce and the British economy as a whole. These initial proposals were met with absolutely no support and it was not until 1848, and the involvement of the Prince Consort, that progress began to be made towards realising the event.

The Exhibition needed a specially built venue and the Royal Commission which was set up to manage the preparation, planning and running of the event considered numerous building designs and even prepared some of their own. However the design that was finally used, which boasted a huge semicircular glass roof over the transept, is credited to Sir Joseph Paxton. He worked closely with the Royal Commission and building contractors Fox & Henderson to create a magnificent building design using cast iron and glass which was situated in Hyde Park. The final building utilised 550 tons of wrought iron, 3,500 tons of cast iron, 30 miles of gutters, 202 miles of sash bars and over 600,000 feet of wooden flooring. The building, being 1851 feet long by 456 feet at its widest point, covered approximately 19 acres and was clad in just under 900,000 feet of glass which gave rise to its name, the ‘Crystal Palace’. The size of the construction required that the building had to have its own fire brigade inside to protect the exhibition items and the public. Twelve large fire engines and teams of trained firemen were on constant station within the galleries.
The façade of the original Crystal Palace
The façade of the original Crystal Palace
Side view of the Crystal Palace
Side view of the Crystal Palace

A huge iron and glass building, The Crystal Palace was a building in 19th Century Britain. A rebuilt and expanded version of the building that originally housed the Great Exhibition of 1851, it stood in Upper Norwood from 1854 until 1936, and attracted many thousands of visitors from all levels of society. The name "Crystal Palace" was coined by the satirical magazine Punch.

The name was later adopted by Crystal Palace Football Club and generally to denote that area of south London.

Original Hyde Park building
The huge glass and iron structure at the top of Sydenham Hill was originally erected in Hyde Park in London to house The Great Exhibition, embodying the products of many countries throughout the world.

"On unbent leaf in fairy guise,
Reflected in the water,
Beloved, admired by hearts and eyes,
Stands Annie, Paxton's daughter..."

Seen in its grand magnificence, the new Crystal Palace again displayed the genius of its creator, Joseph Paxton, who was knighted in recognition of his work. Paxton had been head gardener at Chatsworth, in Derbyshire, where he had befriended its owner, the Duke of Devonshire. Here he had experimented with glass and iron in the creation of large greenhouses, and had seen something of their strength and durability. He applied this knowledge to the plans for the Great Exhibition building — with astounding results. Planners had been looking for strength, durability, simplicity of construction and speed — and this they got from Paxton's ideas. According to the 2004 Encyclopaedia Britannica, "Paxton was partly inspired by the organic structure of the Amazonian lily Victoria regia, which he successfully cultivated".

The Crystal Palace was built by about 5,000 navvies who worked very hard for very little and completed their tasks quickly. Their welfare became the concern of Catherine Marsh, who noticed the poor conditions they were working in and treatment they received: she spared no effort to see that they received fair and just treatment. She made sure that meals were provided for them.

The 900,000 square feet (84,000 m²) of glass was provided by the Chance Brothers glassworks in Smethwick, Birmingham. They were the only glassworks capable of fulfilling such a large order, and had to bring in labour from France to meet it in time.

Relocation commemorative medallion
Relocation commemorative medallion
The life of the Great Exhibition was limited to six months, and something then had to be done with the building. Against the wishes of Parliamentary opponents of anything to do with the scheme, the edifice was re-erected on a property named Penge Place which had been excised from Penge Common atop Sydenham Hill. It was much modified and enlarged, and within two years Queen Victoria again performed an opening ceremony.

Two railway stations were opened to serve the permanent exhibition. The Low Level Station is still in use today as Crystal Palace railway station, and part of the High Level Station, a subway which gave access to the Parade area, can also still be seen with its Italian mosaic roofing. This subway is also a Grade II listed building[citation needed].

There is an apocryphal story, popular amongst local schoolchildren, that the Crystal Palace High Level Station was closed because a commuter train was trapped by a tunnel collapse and remains there to this day. In reality the closure was a scheduled part of the decline of the railway network in the 1950s.

Water features
Joseph Paxton was first and foremost a gardener, and his layout of gardens, fountains, terraces and cascades left no doubt as to his ability. One thing he did have a problem with was water supply. Such was his enthusiasm that thousands of gallons of water were needed in order to feed the myriad fountains and cascades which abounded in the Crystal Palace park. The two main jets were 250 feet (76 m) high.

Initially water towers were constructed, but the weight of water in the raised tanks caused them to collapse. And so Isambard Kingdom Brunel was consulted and came up with the plans for two mighty water towers, one at the north and the other at the south end of the building. Each supported a tremendous load of water which was gathered from three reservoirs at either end of and the middle of the park.

Two years later, the grand fountains and cascades were opened, again in the presence of the Queen — who got wet when a gust of wind swept mists of spray over the Royal carriage.

Waterhouse Hawkins's Iguanodon statues
Waterhouse Hawkins's Iguanodon statues
A Megalosaurus stalks
A Megalosaurus stalks
An Icthyosaur swims with a group of Plesiosaurs
An Icthyosaur swims with a group of Plesiosaurs
Among the attractions were the dinosaurs, life-size models designed and made by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, situated by the Lower lakes, near the Anerley entrance. These are still there today, although it is now known that they are anatomically inaccurate. A dinner party for 22 was held by Hawkins inside one of the Iguanodon statues. The Victorian statues were renovated in a £4,000,000 project. They were officially unveiled by the Duke of Edinburgh in 2002.

The exhibits included just about every marvel of the Victorian Age, encompassing the products of many countries throughout the world. There was pottery and porcelain; ironwork and furniture; steam hammers and hydraulic presses; perfumes and pianos; houses and diving suits; firearms and barometers; fabrics and fireworks — and much more including a walking stick containing an enema!

Queen Victoria loved the place and said she found it 'enchanting'. This was to some extent due to the degree of esteem in which she held the ultimate architect of its fortunes, her beloved husband, Prince Albert.

Most FA Cup finals in the early years of the competition were held in the Crystal Palace Park. The last to be held there was in 1914 when George V became the first reigning monarch to watch the final. Even before the creation of the Crystal Palace F.C., a team bearing the name Crystal Palace played in the competition. Players came from the staff of the Crystal Palace.

The fortunes of the Crystal Palace began to decline when the place ran down and money was not available for maintenance. This was to a large extent due to the failure to obtain sufficient money by way of admission fees, in turn due to the inability to cater for a large portion of the population. The mass of people who would gladly visit the Palace were unable to do so because the only day on which they could get away from work was Sunday, and Sunday was the day on which the Palace was firmly closed. No amount of protest had any effect: the Lord's Day Observance Society (as today) held that people should not be encouraged to work at the Palace or drive transport on Sunday, and that if people wanted to visit, then their employers should give them time off during the working week. This, naturally, they would not do.

There was a Festival of Empire in 1911, to mark the coronation of George V and Queen Mary, but things went from bad to worse, and two years later the 1st Earl of Plymouth purchased the Palace for the nation to save it from developers.

In the Great War it was used as a naval training establishment under the name of HMS Victory VI, informally known as HMS Crystal Palace.[1] At the cessation of hostilities it was re-opened as the first Imperial War Museum. Sir Henry Buckland took over as General Manager, and things began to look up, many former attractions being resumed, including the Thursday evening displays of fireworks by Brocks.

Destruction by fire
On 30 November 1936 came the final catastrophe. Within hours, fire consumed all that had stood for a mighty empire and boundless imagination. The Palace was destroyed, the fire was seen for miles and thousands of people saw the night sky light up by the flames. Just as in 1866 when a fire burnt down the north transept, the building was not adequately insured to cover the cost of rebuilding.

Winston Churchill on his way home from the House of Commons said: "This is the end of an age".

The South Tower had been used for tests by television pioneer John Logie Baird for his mechanical television experiments. Unfortunately for him, much of his work was destroyed in the fire.

In memoriam
All that was left standing were the two water towers, and these were taken down during World War II. The reason given was that the Germans could use them to navigate their way to London. The north one was dynamited, while the south one was taken down brick by brick as it was very close to other buildings. After the war, the site was used for a number of purposes. Between 1953 and 1973 a motor car racing circuit operated on the site with some race meetings supported by the Greater London Council.

The Crystal Palace Foundation was created in 1979 to keep alive the memory and respect for this epic age in Britain's history. Discussion regarding its future continues, various plans have been put forward but none have been put into action on the Top Site.

The park which surrounds the site is now home to Crystal Palace National Sports Centre.

The design of the Crystal Palace has inspired many latter-day construction projects, such as the Dallas, Texas-based Infomart[citation needed].

Crystal Palace in popular culture
The Crystal Palace made a strong impression on the visitors coming from all over Europe, including a number of writers. It soon became a symbol of modernity and civilization, hailed by some and decried by others.

French author Valéry Larbaud left a short text describing his impressions of the Crystal Palace. 
In What is to do be done ?, Russian author and philosopher Nikolai Chernyshevsky pledges to transform the society into a Crystal Palace thanks to a socialist revolution. 
Fyodor Dostoevsky implicitly replied to Chernyshevsky in Notes from Underground. The narrator thinks that human nature will prefer destruction and chaos to the harmony symbolized by the Crystal Palace. 
The Palace (or a similar structure) was seen in the 2004 anime film Steam Boy, and it was also featured in the 2005 anime series Eikoku Koi Monogatari Emma. 
The Crystal Palace serves as the location in the finale of the fantasy book Ptolemy's Gate. 
Italian writer Alessandro Baricco incorporated the Crystal Palace into his novel Land of glass using a mixture of fiction and facts. 
German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk uses the Crystal Palace as a metaphor for the European project. 
The distinctive skyscraper at 30 St Mary Axe, London, picked up the nickname of The Crystal Phallus due to its shape, and as a play on the name Crystal Palace.