How a sketch on a napkin changed how the world thought about architecture

The Crystal Palace of Hyde Park in 1851 was a wonder of the Victorian era, but it almost never happened.


The following is adapted from a presentation I gave at General Assembly’s Design Night Marathon on the subject of “things you didn’t know about design”.

Designers are constantly looking forward. We look at things and wonder how they could be, how we think they should be, and we find inspiration in the excitement of the future.

But the downside of this is that we forget to look back, to see the great things that have come before us and the great people whose work has shaped our present.

Back in the autumn of 1851, the largest building on earth had appeared in Hyde Park in just a matter of weeks. It was the gigantic hall for the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. It was Victorian England’s cathedral to a century’s worth of innovation in engineering and design, eclipsing every effort of architecture that had come before it.

Just 10 months previous, however, it looked like there might not be a Great Exhibition at all. The committee in charge of delivering the event, which had the catchy title of The Royal Commission for the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, was facing disaster. They had spent months spinning their wheels. 245 designs were submitted in a competition for the design of the exhibition hall, and all were rejected as unworkable.

Running out of time and money, the committee did what many a committee has done before. They commissioned another committee with a better name. The Building Committee of the Royal Commission for the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations was headed by the great engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Brunel excelled at many things, but working to tight deadlines wasn’t one of them, and his vision for the Exhibition hall did not sit well with the public. Its focal point was an iron dome, that was as oppressing as it was massive. A newspaper at the time described it as having “all the spirit and playfulness of an abattoir”.

Brunel’s vision for the Great Exhibition hall

Into this unfolding national embarrassment entered the figure of Joseph Paxton, the head gardener at Chatsworth House.

Paxton had been building glasshouses to house tropical fruits and trees from the farthest reaches of the British Empire. The biggest of these was “The Great Stove” for which he had used a minimal amount of brick, and instead opted for iron railings from which glass was hung.

The Great Stove at Chatsworth House.

When Paxton heard of the difficulties Brunel was having with the design of the exhibition hall, he wondered whether something like his glasshouses could work. He sketched on a napkin a rough concept of how the building would be constructed and two weeks later had finished designs submitted to the committee.

Paxton’s design was an unlikely candidate for success. It broke many of the competition rules; first and foremost, that it was six months late for the competition, but also his design incorporated the use of wood flooring, which was prohibited because of its flammability. Even more damningly, Paxton had had no formal education in architecture, and had never attempted anything on this scale before.

In a twist of marketing genius, Paxton also submitted his designs to the Illustrated London News. The public loved them, and so, just a few days later, Brunel’s committee approved Paxton’s idea and work began.

It’s hard for us to imagine just how revolutionary this construction was. There were no foundations, no bricks; just huge plates of glass and a skeleton of iron. The whole thing could be prefabricated from standard parts, just like how skyscrapers are constructed today.

From start to finish, the entire project took just 35 weeks.

We’re so used to seeing glass in huge edifices today, but to a visitor to Hyde Park in 1851, the Crystal Palace would have seemed magical. Most Victorian dwellings, owing to an only recently abolished window tax, were gloomy for the majority of their inhabitants. At the Crystal Palace, people experienced being inside, yet basked in sunshine. The architectural community never looked back.

So, the next time you’re looking for inspiration, think of the gardener who, over a hundred years ago, changed the way the world thought about building with a sketch on a napkin.