The End of an Age
In 1851 the first World Expo was held in London’s Hyde Park in a remarkable building by Joseph Paxton, a designer of English greenhouses. Taking advantage of the newly developed plate glass manufacturing process the vast Crystal Palace was entirely glazed, and was supported on a delicate lattice of prefabricated cast iron. At nearly 1 million square feet and 1851 feet in length, it was the largest enclosed space of its day, the largest use of glass to that date and enclosed an entire world of inventions, technology and culture within its 14,000 exhibits.
It was also the world’s first truly modern building; employing newly developed technology, a sophisticated non-craft based building process on an enormous scale, modular and prefabricated it was entirely demountable and realized from competition to opening day in an astonishing 9 months.
After the 6 months inhabiting Hyde Park (the footprint can still be seen today) it was moved to Sydenham Hill where it was re-erected and enlarged and once again dedicated by Queen Victoria. There it remained for 82 years until a fire as monumental as the building itself literally melted the Crystal Palace away. The fire was the final attraction for the Crystal Palace. British Rail had to schedule extra trains to accommodate the crowds traveling to see the fire and the ruin.
It is a now-forgotten monument that might have been as iconic as the Tour Eiffel, albeit a horizontal one and twice as long. There is even talk of rebuilding it, and however unlikely that seems it would be an amazing thing to see even today.
In the Architectural Review Le Corbusier called it “…one of the great monuments of nineteenth-century architecture.…I could not tear my eyes from the spectacle of its triumphant harmony.”
JM Richards, in the same issue, said “It stood to remind us that we did contribute something to the pioneer efforts of the Modern Movement.”
On November 30, 1936 the fire that destroyed the Crystal Palace marked, as Winston Churchill said, “the end of an age”.