November 06: one of the three most important drawings, ever
2012/11/06 § 6 Comments
On this day in 1850 Joseph Paxton was made a little sketch that became a big deal.
Paxton (1803-65) was a member of the commission that had been tasked with the job of building a structure to house the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. The world’s first exhibition of this kind, it was planned by Prince Albert (although we suspect it was a project Victoria dreamt up to give him something to do.) In good nineteenth-century fashion, they launched a competition for a big building that would be (1) big enough to accommodate the whole thing, (2) quick to build (3) easy to dismantle after the expo was finished. In short, it needed to be unconventional in virtually every way.
The architects of the world responded by spending some time adjusting their cravats, trimming their moostachios and designing conventional museums: big heavy glorious piles of masonry that would take forever to build, a lifetime to carve and cure, eons to chip apart and haul away. None of them served the needs of the commission, and the competition seemed a failure. In his frustration, Albert blustered through a few sets of croquet.
At a meeting in Darby, and not all that differently than your co-workers who draw all over the published agenda at a meeting, Paxton started doodling. Different than your co-workers’, his sketch came to something. As a gardener to the Queen, Paxton had a different idea about building, one that was informed by innovations in iron structure and an expectation that buildings be light, in every sense of the word. Although iron had been readily available at quantity for about a century, it had been only rarely adopted into “polite” architecture. It was one thing to construct a bridge or factory with iron bits, another to suggest that this brute material had any business in the lives of fancy people. Little by little it was accommodated according to the visual conventions of traditional architecture–the roof of Parliament, the wonderful central court of the Reform Club. But an exposition building offered a new kind of entertainment–one that was educational and patriotic, intentionally modern–and thus suggested trying out a new kind of public architecture–one with the capacity to build up and tear down with speed, and one that might contribute to the modernity of the event itself. Almost wholly iron and glass, Paxton’s design had something in common with the vast train sheds of the day, and certainly owed something to the elegant greenhouses he designed for the Queen. But everyone recognized it was different–about as close to Something New Under the Sun that architecture has ever seen. At the time, critics argued that it wasn’t really architecture at all. Within a few generations it was seen as a harbinger of the metallic frame construction that would seem to have taken over Europe and America by the time of the building’s centennial–had it survived.
The building, nicknamed for the ages the Crystal Palace, met a sad end. After being re-erected in another London park after the close of the initial fair, it burned down–or, rather, its structure failed under the terrific heat of all the stuff inside of it that burned on the night of December 1, 1936. In part, this may have helped to secure the building’s fame. If it was still with us, architects would see, study, and tear their hair out over the conventional decorative bits and flourishes that Paxton used to finesse the design at the up-close, human scale. Since it’s not, it’s easier to think of it as a more stark, more industrial behemoth heralding the advent of the Machine Age, expressing a simplicity that is most evident in photographs and, of course, Paxton’s little drawing.
Image: the sketch, which is now in the collection of the VIctoria and Albert Museum (from this source)