Today, we look for art to equal the building that
holds it. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Early in her reign, Queen
Victoria and her consort, Albert, hit on the idea
of staging a great world-wide exhibition of modern
art and design. Sir Joseph Paxton's design finally
won the competition for the central exhibition
hall. Paxton was a botanist and landscape designer
and his building was only a temporary structure.
Yet it became one of the architectural monuments of
In 1851, Paxton erected his Crystal Palace. It was
an amazing glass and iron pavilion, over a third of
mile long, with 800,000 square feet of floor space.
The construction had an avant-garde cantilevered
iron frame. He made it from interchangeable
prefabricated parts and acres of glass panels. It
was certainly influenced by the greenhouses he'd
designed earlier. But he diplomatically claimed
that it imitated the organic design of the Amazon
lily, Victoria Regia -- which suggests Queen
The engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, himself a
worker of wonders in iron, had high praise for the
Crystal Palace. It was, after all, clearly based on
solid engineering principles he'd helped to
establish. Never mind Amazon lilies.
The exhibition drew over six million visitors and
was a huge success until it came down in 1854. But
it represented a crazy confusion of design styles.
Inside Paxton's array of straight lines were
stuffed the busy rounded art works of earlier eras
-- 18th-century rococo, turn of the century nature
worship, a little bit of this and a little bit of
The power of the exhibition lay in the engineering
of the building. Victorian art and design lumbered
on, ponderous, off-the-wall, and slightly
claustrophobic. It was Victorian engineering that
lay its hold on our imaginations. The simple truth
was that engineering was the major art of the
middle 19th century. The Crystal Palace itself, not
its contents, was the art here.
For a generation before the Crystal Palace, the
gossamer design of iron bridges had pointed the way
to this great iron building. Now Paxton had given
all that iron an artistic focus. Conventional art
-- painting and sculpture -- had foundered. For the
moment art was iron. A generation later, as the
iron Eiffel Tower rose over Paris, people like van
Gogh and Rodin would give art a new voice.
It took the impressionists to create art worthy of
those iron buildings. And it's fitting that the
finest collection of impressionist art has come to
rest in Paris's Musée d'Orsay, a vast
19th-century railway station -- made of buoyant
light and iron.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Clark, K., Heroic Materialism.
Civilisation. New York: Harper &
Row, 1969, Chapter 13.
See also encyclopedia articles on the Crystal
Palace and Paxton.
This episode is a reworked version of Episode 19.
The following website offers a picture of the
Crystal Palace and additional historical
For a nineteenth century engraving of the
Crystal Palace click the thumbnail above
(From Tallis' History and Criticism of the
Crystal Palace, 1852)
Tallis' History and Criticism of the Crystal
displayed the exterior of the building.
(All images courtesy of Special
Collections, UH Library)
Meanwhile, this is typical of the material
displayed inside the hall.
(From the Official Descriptive and Illustrated
the Great Exhibition, 1851.)
The Engines of Our
Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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