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How A Glorified Greenhouse Became Modernism’s Most Influential Building

The ornate, Victorian-era Crystal Palace is one of the most obsessed-over buildings of the past 200 years. Here’s why.

In 1853, an enormous glass prism of a building–known as the Crystal Palace–was erected in what is now New York’s Bryant Park on the occasion of the New York world’s fair. Constructed from glazed sheet glass and iron, two materials that were new to architecture at the time, it was unlike anything New Yorkers had seen before: A glittering monument to modernism. It was also something of a copy.

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The original Crystal Palace had been constructed two years prior in London. As coincidence would have it, both Crystal Palaces burned down–though the better-known London building lasted for 85 years before it met its fiery end, while the New York one only lasted five. Yet the fascination with the Crystal Palace lived on long after the original was built, and long after it became clear that the building and material innovations that made the palaces novel during the dawn of the industrial revolution would not have the lasting influence on civic architecture that was expected at the time.

John Bachmann. Bird’s Eye View of the New York Crystal Palace and Environs, 1853. Museum of the City of New York. The J. Clarence Davies Collection. Gift of J. Clarence Davies, 1929.

 

In the 19th century alone, similar Crystal Palaces were built to serve as exhibition buildings in Munich, Montreal, Toronto, Madrid and Brazil, the latter two of which are still standing. Today, 160 years after the original Crystal Palace’s construction, you can find replicas in all sorts of strange places: For example, the Infomart in Dallas, Texas, is a data center that was modeled after London’s Crystal Palace. In London, a Chinese billionaire had planned to build a replica in the exact spot of the original until the deal fell through last year. At Disney World, one can eat brunch with oversized Disney characters inside the Crystal Palace. The Javits Center in New York, in essence, is derivative of both Crystal Palaces, according to Caroline Hannah, the associate curator of the recently opened New York Crystal Palace 1853 exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery. The Wikipedia entry for “Crystal Palace” brings up a list of 15 buildings around the world, at least six of which appear to be copies of the London building in more than just name.

The fact that it has been replicated so much hints at its remarkable influence on modern architecture. While the ornate, iron and glass Victorian design may not look particularly modern, its ethos is still present in the DNA of a lot of architecture today, and not just in the amusement park replicas. Is the Crystal Palace the most obsessed-over piece of architecture in recent history?

Interior View of South Nave of Crystal Palace in its second year of exhibition, with statues, windows, stairs and other structural elements of building, 1854. New- York Historical Society.

Revolutionary Tech In An Ornate Disguise

The first Crystal Palace was built in London’s Hyde Park in 1851 to house the Great Exhibition, the first in the series of World’s Fairs held across the world in the 19th century. The queen held a design competition for the building, and the job was awarded to Joseph Paxton, a horticulturist best known for being the gardener for the Duke of Devonshire. Paxton had experimented with glass construction before in his celebrated greenhouse designs, and his winning design for the Crystal Palace was modeled after a house he’d built for the Duke specifically to house an Amazonian lily that had been brought over to England. He took aspects of the greenhouse and the huge ribbed floating leaves of the lily–so big, his young daughter could sit on one–as inspiration.

Paxton’s Crystal Palace involved several breakthroughs in material and construction of the time. His design was the first to make use of the invention of the cast plate glass method in 1848, which made it possible to produce large sheets of glass strong enough for construction cheaply. The largest sheet of glass that could be manufactured at the time was 10 inches wide by 49 inches long, so Paxton modeled the entire building around those dimensions: He designed the Crystal Palace as a long rectangle with a gallery in the center and two wings extending out on either side. While the wings had a flat-profile roof, the central, two-story gallery, above which was a barrel-vaulted roof that took the form of a long triangular prism. Made out of glass, the structure of the roof allowed for it to be both very light and very strong. By using all of the same sized panes, Paxton made it easy and cost-efficient to glaze them all at once.

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Paxton’s design also made the manufacture and assembly of the building parts simple and cheap, by dividing each area into modules that could be fully formed and self-supporting on its own. In effect, the Crystal Palace was the first prefab building. Because the entire design was based on the size of the glass sheets the supplier was able to manufacture, it is also held up as an early example of form following function, the modernist mantra that a building’s architecture should be derived from its intended function of purpose. Its modular design allowed London to build the largest building in the world in all of eight months.

By the time New York had its chance to host the world fair, two years later, the politicians and businessmen planning it had a firm request: the exhibition building had to be made out of iron and glass. Danish horticulturist and designer Georg Carstensen and German architect Charles Gildemeister set out to build New York’s own Crystal Palace, though they were constrained by the boundaries of Reservoir Square, a square plot of land that is now Bryant Park. Basing their plan on ecclesiastical architecture, Carstensen and Gildemeister created a square cross for the roof, over which they designed an enormous glass dome–larger and higher than any in the country. To maximize the space on the lot, they added triangular wings to the four corners of the square cross, creating an octagon that filled almost all of the available space.

Frederick J. Pilliner. “A Panoramic Representation of the Interior of the Crystal Palace, New York,” from A Panoramic Gleason’s Pictorial, Boston, Saturday, February 4, 1854. Private collection.

A Lost Building With A Long Afterlife

When the New York Crystal Palace was constructed, it was advertised as being completely fireproof, since glass and steel aren’t flammable. Two years later, the building caught fire under still-mysterious circumstances and burned down in half an hour. The 2,000 people within the building got out, but the wooden floors and everything in the exhibitions caught and fanned the flame.

London’s Crystal Palace was up for much longer–it burned down eight decades after being moved from Hyde Park after the exhibition to Sydenham and what is still known as Crystal Palace Park. Its demise was also due to the dry timber floors and flammable exhibition materials. Yet according to Hannah, the building’s legacy was much longer. “If you look at historians like Nikolaus Pevsner, they see the Crystal Palace in London as a progenitor of modern architecture,” she says. “Even if we see the fancy iron work and think otherwise.” The exhibition at Bard looks at not only the overlooked history of the building, it also showcases many of the enormous range of consumer goods and new technology housed inside and the impact the exhibition had on the economy and development of the city. 

In an essay for the Bard exhibition, Sheila Moloney writes that the iron and glass aesthetic of the Crystal Palace turned out to have little appeal in civic architecture. She continues: “It’s pairing with plate glass in a uniquely integrated architectural form, as in the London and New York Crystal Palace buildings, has subsequently been confined mainly to train stations and shopping arcades in urban areas and to greenhouses in rural areas and parks.” Yet even if rod-iron greenhouses never made a big mark on the infrastructure or development of cities, Paxton’s design innovations certainly left its mark on architecture. Prefabricated homes and buildings became a modernist hallmark, and the theory of form following function, coined by American architect Louis Sullivan, became a Modernist rallying cry for architects in the 1930s.

Today, Moloney says, the buildings whose design vocabulary is most directly derived from the Crystal Palace are those than host exhibitions, or large spaces that need to go up quickly. “It is the quickest way to put up that kind of space,” she says. The New York Crystal Palace, coming out on the heels of the London Crystal Palace, needed to go up fast, and without backing from the monarchy. Even if the Crystal Palace style disappeared along with the original buildings, it’s still a prime example of ingenuity, efficiency and affordability in architecture. And one that we just can’t seem to get over. 

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About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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