Material Marvels: The Crystal Palace

Materials World magazine
1 Nov 2017

There are only a few pillars left of what was South London’s Crystal Palace – a glass building that burned down in 1936. Anna Ploszajski writes.

The evening of 30 November 1936 was cold and blustery, but Sir Henry Buckland, his daughter Crystal and their dog braved the weather for an evening walk in the grounds of Crystal Palace, of which Sir Henry was the manager. Just after 19:00, they noticed a faint glow coming from the Palace building. At first it just looked like a small office fire, but the flames spread quickly, and soon engulfed the building into a spectacular inferno. Thousands of spectators gathered to watch the blaze as it wrapped itself around the skeletal frame of the palace and the flames stretched up high into the wintery sky. Among the onlookers was Winston Churchill who uttered, ‘This is the end of an age’. As the clouds of the second World War gathered on the horizon, he spoke not just of this ill-fated engineering wonder.

87 years earlier, it was Victorian artist, civil servant and inventor of the commercial Christmas card, Henry Cole, who had the idea of an international exhibition. With the backing of Prince Albert, Cole’s ambition was to impress the world with British industrial achievements. This Great Exhibition was to be funded from public subscription and, in January 1850, experts were appointed to manage its successful execution. 

But where would such a vast exhibition be held? Clearly it would require its own site, and the building committee for the project invited submissions for designs for the new exhibition building. But timing was tight, the opening of the exhibition was already scheduled for 1 May 1851, giving the group just over a year to finalise a design, have it fully constructed and assemble the exhibits. The specifications for the building were stringent. It needed to be a temporary, simple structure, which was as cheap as possible to build and could be constructed in a very short time frame.

The committee received hundreds of entries in a matter of weeks, but they rejected every single one of them on the grounds of poor design or simply being too expensive. Much time was wasted on disagreements on the building’s design and location but, fortunately for them, the blueprints from a certain gardener landed on the committee’s desk. 

Joseph Paxton was a renowned gardener and landscaper. One of his works, the public gardens at Birkenhead Park near Liverpool, was the inspiration for New York’s Central Park. A few years earlier, as head gardener at Chatsworth House in the Peak District, Paxton had experimented with the construction of glasshouses, culminating in 1836 in a conservatory that was the largest glass building in the world at the time. His methodology was to use different combinations of standard sizes of sheet glass, laminate wood and prefabricated cast iron to make modular and hierarchical constructions. 

He used this same approach in his design for the Great Exhibition. After pacing the grounds of Hyde Park, where the building was to be located, he took just two weeks to produce the detailed plans and cost calculations, which he submitted to the committee. They were blown away. Paxton’s remarkable design not only met the economic and logistical requirements, but also surpassed them spectacularly. By July 1850, Paxton’s design was unanimously commissioned, leaving him with just eight months before the grand opening the following May. 

The ingenuity of Paxton’s design was its compliance to external constraints ¬– the building’s entire geometry was based on off-the-shelf parts, which reduced both production costs and installation time. This meant that the size and shape of the panes of glass made by the supplier, Chance Brothers of Smethwick, dictated the building’s dimensions. These panes were 10 inches wide and 4ft 1in inches long (25.3cm x 1.3m), the largest available at the time, and the palace construction used 300,000 of them. Both the glass and the cast-iron skeleton were manufactured in the Midlands, but the new technology of the telegraph allowed for rapid communication between the suppliers and the site in London. 

The Chance Brothers were granted the contract thanks to their new industrial approach to glass-making. Their method was developed from the old process of making broad sheet glass, a type of cylinder glass; where molten glass is blown into an elongated tube shape, cut down the axis while hot, and the sheet flattened on an iron plate. The new process took the idea of blown plate glass – the broad sheet glass was hand-ground to make it flatter – but used James Chance’s new polishing technique, which required less manual handling and, crucially, didn’t leave the panes with any size limitations. Chance called this glass 'patent plate’ and it was an immediate commercial success. 

The entire Crystal Palace building was modular, and the basic element was a self-supporting cube with sides 24 feet long. These modules were strong enough to be stacked vertically, allowing for a whole second level of the exhibition. Alternatively, some cubes could be omitted to accommodate for larger exhibits. 

The identical modules could be prefabricated and they were very fast and easy to build, and construction could also proceed at the rate at which the parts came off the assembly line. 

For the roof, Paxton re-used his patented triangular-prism-shaped ‘ridge and furrow’ roofing system from the Chatsworth House conservatory. 

This shape allowed for very effective water management in the patented Paxton Gutter. Rainwater ran off the angled panes into multi-functional U-shaped cast-iron channels. 

These also served the purpose of acting as the rails that supported and guided the glaziers’ trolleys on which they sat during the installation of the roofing, and acted as joists that supported the roof sections. These gutters guided rainwater to the main larger gutters that ran perpendicular along the main horizontal roof-bearers. These in turn funnelled water into the hollow cores of the cast iron pillars that acted as concealed down-pipes to channel water down to the drains beneath the building. This ingenious multi-purposing of parts further reduced components, build time and cost.

Temperature regulation in the glasshouse was a key challenge. The heat from the sun and the people inside could have made it unbearably hot. Paxton employed two strategies to combat this. The first was to stretch canvas cloth up in the roof to produce shade and soften the light coming in. These sheets could also actively cool the air using evaporative cooling when water was sprayed onto them. The second strategy was to incorporate controllable ventilating panels (louvres) on the outer walls, and floorboards spaced 1cm apart. As hot air escaped from the ventilation panels, cool air was drawn up through the gaps in the floor, resulting in a cooling airflow throughout the building. 

The whole build of the palace took just five months, a remarkable feat if you consider that the Royal Albert Hall, built two decades later, took four years. Over 5000 ‘navvies’ constructed the 4,000 tonnes of cast iron for the building’s skeleton, and the 80 glaziers could install over 18,000 panes of glass per week. The Crystal Palace was huge. Over five times as long as Buckingham Palace and as high as the Albert Hall stands today. It took the record for the largest glass building in the world. Paxton’s design even managed to enclose the full-size elm trees that were already present on-site into the central exhibition hall. 

The Crystal Palace housed exhibitions containing 100,000 objects, showcasing the technology of the industrial revolution in Britain and the Empire. They were categorised as Raw Materials, Machinery, Manufacturers and Fine Arts. During the six short months that the Great Exhibition ran, there were over 6 million admissions, and the £186,000 profit made (over £18m in today’s money) was used to found the V&A Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum. Both Paxton and Charles Fox, the owner of the ironwork contractor Fox and Henderson, were knighted by Queen Victoria for their contribution to the resounding success of the project.

After the Exhibition, the Crystal Palace was dismantled, but re-constructed at Sydenham Hill in South London. This incarnation followed the same construction as the original palace on a larger scale. Paxton designed the grounds and gardens for the new palace, and the fountains, terraces and cascades needed so much water that esteemed engineer Brunel designed two enormous water towers at either end of the site. It was in this garden that the sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins created his 33 life-sized model dinosaurs, which at that time had only recently been discovered, and which survive to this day. 

The new palace housed concerts, exhibits and even a circus over the following decades but the re-build was an economic disaster. The move was an order of magnitude more expensive than the original, and by the 1890s, its novelty had worn off. The ageing building and the dated exhibits became considered downmarket, and mounting repair costs left the managing company bankrupt by 1911. 

The palace changed hands a few times in an effort to save it, but the struggles ended abruptly on the fateful night in November 1936. Over 400 firefighters and 89 fire engines attempted to extinguish the blaze, but they were thwarted by high winds, timber flooring and flammable exhibits inside. The Crystal Palace, which once represented the best of British engineering, was no more.