Joseph Paxton’s 1851 modular, modern, masterpiece, The Crystal Palace, was created for The Great Exhibition, hosted in Hyde Park, London, in the same year. From the nascent vision of Prince Albert, the Great Exhibition celebrated peace, industry, and modernity, and opened on May 1st by Queen Victoria to much delight and amazement. It was the first World’s Fair to celebrate industry and worldwide culture.
Donned in glass, it was a cultural Matryoshka, a cross section of culture and industry, housing its hundred thousand objects along with all the flags of the world. From Sevres porcelain to the 27-foot crystal fountain, the palace was a tour de force, an architectural wunderkammer erected on a self supporting iron structure with an edifice comprised of the largest glass panels available on the market. The Crystal Palace embodied the spirit of the Great Exhibition two-fold, it being an industrial vessel holding cultural objects, while itself being a cultural object signifying ‘nowness.’
Now experienced through Paxton’s inky field sketch, still held in the V&A Museum, some architectural plans, and a few illustrations along with black and white photographs, the Palace can be relegated to a position of antiquated ‘has been,’ as it was some one hundred fifty years in the past. However, the Palace can be delegated as an architectural and industrial breakthrough, taking the blue ribbon for modernity. It is, and was, the founding member of the avant garde for a culture of glass.
Paxton’s Crystal Palace emits a rational beauty of geometry, set to the tune of a fixed modular, balanced in form and rhythm, glistening through and through with the one thing that lets one see...light.