designprobe - whats going on  
  whats going onhow to be creativemaking new thingsabout designprobe  


The Crystal Palace

The year 2001 marked the 150th anniversary of the construction of one of the great buildings of all time: Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace. In this article we discuss the importance of this building. (1)

Whilst the work of Joseph Paxton has often been overlooked by the majority of architects, the historian H.R. Hitchcock paralleled Joseph Paxton’s contribution to architecture with Henry Ford’s contribution to industrial practice. (2)

Paxton’s design for the Crystal Palace for the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, remains to this day a great example of systems building.

It was an extraordinary feat comprising "...a total co-ordination of design, industrial production, delivery and erection in 17 weeks of a building that covered some 19 acres [7.7 hectares] and was ready for occupancy in 6 months." (3)

The Competition

The Crystal Place was a response to a failed competition to design the major building for the first world’s fair, in London’s Hyde Park in 1851.

The competition was announced with just over 13 months to the opening of The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. The brief required a building that was to be: "temporary in nature, economical of materials and labor, simple in its arrangement, capable of rapid erection, dismantling and expansion, illuminated entirely from the roof, built of fire-resistant materials and erected over an 18 acre (7.2 hectare) site, generally to a height of a single storey." (4)

Of 245 designs submitted, none were deemed suitable. The competition organizers then proceeded to design their own proposal. It was comprised primarily of brick with a large central dome and created an enormous public and parliamentary uproar.

Paxton then stepped forward to offer a design proposal completed in 8 days. Paxton’s proposal was officially accepted in late-June 1850, leaving a mere 10 months to complete the project. This extremely tight design and construction program opened the way for a major revolution in the design of buildings to be undertaken.

The Crystal Palace was opened on schedule on May 1st, 1851.

World's First

The design of the Crystal Palace was a revolutionary one and comprised a number of world firsts. (5) These included:
  • World’s 1st Completely free-standing, large scale building to be constructed with an iron frame.
  • World’s 1st Planar-roofed and rectilinear building to be constructed with an iron frame.
  • World’s 1st Building to be constructed with a large scale ‘hanging glass’ or curtain wall system. (6)
  • World’s 1st Building to use a system of portal braces specifically designed to counteract lateral wind loading.
  • World’s 1st Large scale building to be made from a series of prefabricated modular units.

The Latest Developments

The Crystal Palace also applied some of the leading technologies of the 1850’s. These included:

Pre-stressing had only recently been made possible due to the development of the hydraulic jack. Paxton incorporated pre-stressing in the design of the trusses (to provide uniformity in the truss depths over a variety of spans) and the wood-gutters within the roofing system (these were incorporated in a truss and cambered to assist water-flow and structural strength).

Had the Crystal Palace been designed before 1845 (a mere 6 years earlier) it could not have been built due to a prohibitive excise on glass. Paxton also demanded the largest sheet size of glass possible through the production methods of the day and this formed an essential module for the final layout.

Folded Plates
The extensive use of the Ridge and Furrow glazed roof and wall panelling anticipated folded plate or pleated construction. The shape of the folded plates added stiffness and increased the loading of the structural elements.

Truss Design
Paxton applied the calculations for truss design that had only been developed in the decade prior to construction. For example, the top of the truss chords were made larger than the bottom chords and increased the width of the trusses at the centre of their spans.

Standardized components
In particular, the design of machine made interchangeable nuts and bolts was " and uncommon." (7)

Systems Qualities

As Barry Russell (8) suggests, the Crystal Palace embodies many of the qualities systems buildings pursue today. These include:

1 Modular
The Crystal Palace represents a typical approach to modularization. A light cast-iron sub-structure supports an external weather-proof lightweight skin, or curtain wall.
The building was also designed to fit a structural and cladding module. This was determined by the maximum size possible to manufacture sheet glass, 49 inches, and conforming to the 24 foot structural grid. Cast-iron trusses were made in fixed lengths of 24, 48 and 72 feet.

2 Prefabrication and Dry-Assembly
All components were prefabricated, mass-produced and standardized. This not only accelerated the manufacturing process but also enhanced the speed of erection.
Prefabrication was also a necessary consequence of the use of cast-iron columns and trusses, since cast-iron members could not be cut to size on site.
Whilst the standardized components used by Paxton are representative of an Industrial era, the clever use of interchangeable components allowed a variety of forms to be created thus belying the limits of the manufacturing process.
(Today the opportunities presented by automation technology shifts the emphasis from standardized to customized components.)

3 Interchangeable
Many of the components are interchangeable. In particular, as previously noted, machine-made nuts and bolts provided significant benefits to accelerating the erection process.
More importantly, the greatest value of the Crystal Palace was the ability of the system to be erected in a variety of forms. The entire building, including the arched transcepts and vaults, were constructed from the same set of components. A contemporary of Paxton’s, even suggested that the components could be transfigured into a 1000 foot tower! However, it should be noted that the cast-iron supports would not have been strong enough to uphold such a structure. (9)

4 Demountability
The building was dismantled in 1852 and re-erected on Sydenham Hill in 1854. In 1936 it was destroyed by fire.

5 Mechanized erection techniques
An incredible 92 000 square metres (990 000 square feet) or a total enclosed volume of 934 000 cubic metres (33 million cubic feet).was constructed in 39 weeks.
The mechanized erection techniques were vital to this achievement and included:
• The framework was it’s own scaffolding. Once four columns, connecting pieces and girders were in place, the structure became self-supporting.
• Machinery was used to ‘dress’ and paint the timber used for the lengths of wood sash bars and gutters. Steam engines powered the hammers, drills, hoists, derricks and the hydraulic equipment. These were considered to be advanced practices for the time. Horsepower was also used.
• The most stunning mechanized erection technique was the use of roof glazing wagons. These rode in the wooden gutters allowing 4 men simultaneously to install the panes and the sash bars. This system was incredibly effective: 80 men were able to install almost 19 000 panes of glass in a single week!

6 Unified Design and Construction Team
The designer, engineers and suppliers worked as one organization. Paxton, Fox and Henderson (contractors and engineers), and Chance (glass suppliers), controlled the companies working on the building.

Key Point

Paxton’s design for the Crystal Palace was an ingenious response to a dramatic set of events. The timetable for the design and construction of a very large building was incredibly short - even by today’s standards. For its time, the built response was not simply a stunning collection of advanced technology but combined with an entirely fresh conception of architecture.

Despite being designed over 140 years ago, the Crystal Palace remains a prime demonstration of the requirements of the new design brief and systems buildings, for the architect in the Information Age.


(1) The basis of this article has been adopted from: F.T. Kihlstedt; "The Crystal Palace"; Scientific American; Scientific American Inc.; New York; October 1984; P. 126-139. Specific details are further highlighted.
(2) Kihlstedt; Page 136.
(3) Kihlstedt; Page 135.
(4) Kihlstedt; Page 125.
(5) F.T. Kihlstedt; "The Crystal Palace"; Scientific American; Scientific American Inc.; New York; October 1984; P. 126
(6) Kihlstedt recognizes that the glass wall of the Crystal Palace was a ‘modified curtain wall’, but acknowledges Paxton’s earlier design for the Victoria Regia Lily House as ‘"true" curtain wall on a smaller scale.
(7) Kihlstedt; Page 136.
(8) B. Russell; Building Systems, Industrialization, and Architecture; John Wiley and Sons; London; 1981; P.41-6. Russell provides the outline and the suggestion for this connection and details have been modified by this author or added to from Kihlstedt.
(9) Kihlstedt; Page 137-8.

The Future of Architecture Table of Contents

More articles on Architecture

The Future of Architecture: An extensive section of articles based upon Geoffrey McDonald's book 'Beyond the Electronic Drawing Board'.
Proportional Design Systems:
In contrast to 'linear design systems', 'proportional design systems' may provide an alternative approach for computer generated architectural design.
Flexibility and Adaptability: We propose three questions to ask about Flexibility and Adaptability in architectural design.
Generalists or Specialists?: We consider: "Should the next generation of architects practice as generalists or specialists, or both?"
From Drawing Board to Automation: A look at Marshall McLuhan's catch phrase 'the medium is the message' as a context for architectural design.



whats going on how to be creative making new things about designprobehome
©designprobe 2000-4 All rights reserved •