London’s Crystal Palace was built for the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, 1851. It has been called proto-modern architecture, and was widely imitated in elsewhere. But its design was problematic. Pugin called it a glass-monster, Carlyle a big glass soap bubble and Ruskin a conservatory. Ruskin's label was closest to the truth: the building had been designed by Joseph Paxton, using his experience in building a large green house for the Duke of Devonshire. In this building, cast-iron structure, pre-fabricated units and a glass curtain wall were tested out.
Crystal Palace, interior
Victorian History blog suggested that modernity was not uniformly present throughout the exhibition architecture. Inside, the wonderful straight lines which captured the eye and drew it onward and upward were compromised by busy, rounded art works totally out of place; not to mention out of time. While the era demonstrated progress in architecture, power and construction in the sciences, the arts languished. Ornamentation was oldfashioned and over the top.
Well, yes! I had always known that medievalist architect Augustus Pugin 1812-52 said to Joseph Paxton, architect of the Crystal Palace “you had better keep to building green-houses, and I will keep to my churches and cathedrals”. So I assumed from that comment that Pugin would have wanted to keep well away from the modernist glass monster.
Yet in 1851, as Margaret showed, Pugin was hard at work on the Medieval Court for the Great Exhibition and many of the objects on display were designed by him. In one way, this makes perfect sense. Pugin was deeply involved in a religious movement that idealised the Middle Ages for its spiritual awareness – he loved the gothic aesthetic and he loved the medieval morality. Pugin created a series of detailed drawings that gave details of medieval Gothic architecture and decoration. Specimens of Gothic Architecture and Examples of Gothic Architecture, both published in the 1820s, helped contemporaries architects and designers recreate the Gothic style anew.
Let us ask two questions. Why was Pugin allowed to construct a medieval court, “with wild Gothic longings for pre-Reformation Catholicism and trappings, all made in Birmingham” (New Statesman Dec 1999). Many Anglican critics must have half feared a new Catholic resurgence in England. Secondly why did Pugin agree to work in a setting (Crystal Palace) that must have felt repugnant to him? He certainly prepared his Medieval Court with his normal attention to detail and in the end, his court even won the 1851 Great Exhibition Prize Medal! But a medieval court hardly fitted in with the pro-science, pro-industry and modernist architectural attitudes of the Great Exhibition.
Despite all fears, the exhibition eventually made a large surplus. All profits went on to fund an education trust with grants given out for industrial research, in particular the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum.
Medieval court, Crystal Palace
Alas for Pugin, he had thrown himself heart and soul into his career for too long. Soon after the 1851 Exhibition at Crystal Palace, Pugin collapsed from exhaustion and died.
Crystal Palace moved from Hyde Park (built 1851) to Sydenham (1853-4). The new Crystal Palace Company re-erected its identical, standardised cast-iron sections and created the surrounding gardens. The second version was more expensive than the first because it had five rather than three floors and it had elaborate gardens with terracing and fountains. Pugin's original Medieval Court was now joined by Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Moorish, Renaissance, Indian, Chinese and other courts.
In Nov 1936, the second Crystal Palace was razed to the ground in a horrible fire. The cause of the fire was never established, so everyone rushed to their own judgement: the fire brigade was not called until it was too late; the internal wiring was defective; previous repairs were cheaply done, to encourage auctioning off the Palace; the neighbouring community resented the crowds and endless costs etc etc.
Modern visitors can go to Crystal Palace Museum which has collected all the photos, documents and artefacts that survived the fire. The museum is appropriately housed in a building actually constructed by the Crystal Palace Co.