Crystal Palace: A History
BBC London's Gary Holland goes back to the year 1854 to find out all about the Palace and the people behind
this amazing south London site
The Crystal Palace was a huge glass and iron structure originally built in 1851 for the Great Exhibition held in London's
Hyde Park. Prince Albert, head of the Society of Arts, had the idea of an exhibition to impress the world with Britain's
industrial achievements. Countries including France, the United States, Russia, Turkey and Egypt all attended with
exhibits falling into four main categories - Raw Materials, Machinery, Manufacturers and Fine Arts. The Palace was
designed by Sir Joseph Paxton and after the Great Exhibition finished in October 1851 he had the idea of moving it to
Penge Place Estate, Sydenham as a 'Winter Park and Garden under Glass'. Penge Place, now called Crystal Palace Park,
was owned by Paxton's friend and railway entrepreneur Leo Schuster. August 1852 saw the rebuilding work begin and
in June 1854 Crystal Palace was re-opened in its new location by Queen Victoria. The whole building was enormous -
1,848 feet long and 408 feet wide including two huge towers and many fountains with over 11,000 jets rising into the
The palace and the grounds became the world's first theme park offering education, entertainment, a rollercoaster,
cricket matches, and even 20 F.A. Cup Finals between 1895 -1914. The site attracted 2 million visitors a year and was
also home to displays, festivals, music shows and over one hundred thousand soldiers during the First World War. Part
of the gardens included a prehistoric swamp complete with models of dinosaurs. They were the first prehistoric animals
ever built and came only around 30 years after dinosaurs were discovered. The dinosaur park has recently re-opened
after a £4m refurbishment project.
However, the Palace fell into financial ruin and a series of fires spelt the end of this historic building.
"This is the end of an age"
Sir Winston Churchill, 1936
Crystal Palace was cursed by bad luck and financial crisis. In 1861 the Palace was damaged by strong winds and on
Sunday 30th December 1866 a fire broke out destroying the North End of the building along with many natural history
exhibits. In 1892 one person died from a hot air balloon accident and eight years later another was trampled to death by
an escaped elephant. Although the palace saw many successful years and millions of visitors financial problems plagued
the Palace. Its sheer size meant it was impossible to maintain financially and it was declared bankrupt in 1911.A trust
was set up and they soon employed Henry James Buckland as Manager of Crystal Palace.
After the fire in 1936
However, it was the night of 30th November 1936 that saw the most devastation. Henry Buckland and his daughter
Crystal, named after his love of Crystal Palace, were out walking their dog and noticed a small fire at the Palace. This
soon escalated and a huge fire broke out across the building. By morning most of the Palace was destroyed. There had
been 88 fire engines, 438 officers, men from 4 fire brigades and 749 police officers on duty that historic night. Some of
the original remains that can still be seen today are classed as Grade II* listed. They include terraces, sphinxes and the
huge bust of Sir Joseph Paxton. Other fascinating features include sets of stairs, remains of the aquarium and the base of
Isambard Kingdom Brunel's south water tower.
Architecture and Ideology: The Crystal Palace and the Ideology of Glass
Joseph Paxton's design for the Crystal Palace in London in the 1850s was both innovative and revolutionary in its
design. Apart from being a phenomenal structure to look at, the design of the Crystal Palace also gave rise to raising
both philosophical and ideological implications on the choice of glass as an architectural material. The very idea of
using architectural design as an ideological symbol has only recently become a subject of theoretical analysis, though its
implicit use as a political statement goes back as far the art form itself. The conceptual use of glass as a symbol of
vision allows for an elasticity of analysis that includes looking at, being looked at, and looking at while being looked at.
The Crystal Palace is considered an emblem of the move toward modernity, an enclosure for the exhibition of value
objects that looked forward to Walter Benjamin's conception of exhibitionary value, yet both Paxton's sketches and
Camille Pissarro's paintings of the structure reveal a vision that seems content with a merely utilitarian conception.
Glass as a symbol of panoptical ideology-especially as utilized in Paxton's Crystal Palace-is especially open to
interpretation; often interpretation that oversteps the boundaries of intention. The complete opacity of glass offers the
spectator a glimpse into another room, yet also leaves the viewer vulnerable to becoming an object of voyeurism. Some
view this as a reversal of the idea of the Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, suggesting that while that structure was
designed with the express purpose of allowing everyone to be seen, the Crystal Palace was instead designed so that
everyone inside could see out. Although that argument sounds well reasoned on the surface, one must keep in mind that
the Panopticon was designed with ideological purpose in mind, that of control through surveillance, whereas the Crystal
Palace was designed with only one specific purpose in mind: to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. Nothing exists in
the writings left behind by Paxton to give any indication of an ideological purpose behind his construction of the Crystal
Palace, and his sketches hardly indicate any intention beyond making a name for himself. Although there can be little
question that all architecture does have an ideological component as Walter Benjamin and Michel Foucault argue, there
also exists the argument that the ideology does not spring from the intent of the architect.
The sense here is that the political functions of architecture are covert. Paxton's sketches were quickly designed, almost
offhandedly, giving him doubtless little time to think about such things as the ideological meanings behind using glass
as a building material. For Paxton, glass was simply available and experiential; he had worked in the medium before.
The glass held no deeper meaning for him, the call had gone out for a building in which to house an exhibition. An
exhibition was something that by its very nature needed to engender an ease with which it could be viewed.
It is not difficult to suppose that Camille Pissarro viewed the great glass structure in much the same way. Pissaro's
painting of the Crystal Palace, a subject he went back to twelve times, do not frame the subject of a glass building in a
way that presupposes its function as an emblem of modernity or as an ideological statement. For Pissarro, like Paxton,
the glass functions in a predominantly utilitarian way. Glass for Paxton functioned as the best way to achieve
exhibition; for Pissarro the glass functioned in much the same way as the haystacks functioned for fellow impressionist
painter Claude Monet, as an interesting subject for capturing the unique differences in the behavior of light. For the
Impressionists, nothing mattered more than light. Claude Monet painted haystacks over and over, at various times of
day, capturing the varying effects of light upon his subject. Pissarro returned to the Crystal Palace because he saw it as a
perfect subject for capturing the effects of light. It was the world's largest prism.
Architecture can and should be critiqued as ideological messages, but the mistake lies in assuming ideological intent
among designers. Just as Foucault announced the death of the artist as a way of shifting the burden of the critique of a
book's meaning onto the reader, so should the ideology of a piece of architecture be taken away from the architect. For
the Crystal Palace, it's easy enough to see that glass functions ideologically for critics, but functionally for architects
and painters. Paxton and Pissarro both saw in the use of glass a perfectly utilitarian use that applied to both their choice
1) Why was the Crystal Palace built?
2) which are the main categories Britain presented to the world?
3) why was it considered the first theme park?
4) what’s the destiny of such a palace?
5) Can you remember other important fire events related to architecture?
6) what’s the glass symbol of?
7) what’s the function of the glass? What’s the relationship between Paxton and Monet?