Crystal Palace of the mods

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The Crystal Palace of 1851 housing the Great Exhibition of London. (Pinterest)

[In seeking to confirm that former RISD Prof. Derek Bradford was, in fact, born in London I learned to my great dismay that he had passed away in January. Derek and I maintained a most friendly badinage for years from our opposite corners of the architectural discourse. For years, his was the most knowledgeable architectural voice on the design review panel of the Capital Center Commission. My columns over two decades were festooned with quotations from Derek, which I tried my best to rebut. He invariably responded to my criticisms kindly, if not quite gently. I convey my condolences to his widow Sara. The following post is exactly as written prior to my discovering the news.]

The construction in 1851 at Hyde Park, in London, of the Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton, is felt by many modernists to be the beginning of modern architecture.

My baptism by fire in the fervor of this belief came in a debate during the mid-1990s with RISD Prof. Derek Bradford here in Providence at Laurelmead, a living center for seniors the city’s East Side.  Bradford, raised in London, declared the Crystal Palace a turning point in architecture. With his elegant British accent, he basically mopped up the floor with me. But the audience remained on my side all the way, favoring tradition and staunchly upholding the idea that a house should look like a house. But since then I’ve heard all the hoo-rah about the Crystal Palace a million times.

Never mind that platforms at railroad stations had been covered with networks of glass and iron for at least a decade, that the development of glass and metal structure was just another in the succession of technical improvements in construction practice, or that the Crystal Palace itself featured fairly modest but clearly visible decorative embellishment inside and out. Somehow, the Crystal Palace was a turning point.

So my gratification was unbounded when I read in Victorian Architecture, by Roger Dixon and Stefan Muthesius, in a section entitled “Changing attitudes to iron buildings,” that “iron, which in the Early Victorian period had all the appeal of a new, daring constructional material, now became associated in the mind of the public with cheap utilitarian buildings.” Well, fancy that!

“Bishops refused to consecrate iron churches,” the authors write, adding that after the Crystal Palace’s success, a temporary museum of science and art was erected in Brompton, south of Hyde Park.

The exterior was faced with corrugated iron. The public reaction was not favourable: the building was dubbed the “Brompton Boilers” by George Godwin, editor of The Builder, and the name stuck. It was eventually moved to the East End of London, where since 1873, decently clothed in a brick exterior wall by J.W. Wild (1814-92), it has housed the Bethnal Green Museum. On the other hand, the court of the Oxford Museum, begun in 1855 by Woodward, shows an attempt by the Gothicists at a more ornate and “architectural” iron structure.

Where metal and glass buildings were constructed in the Mid-Victorian period they tended to become less stark, and to be overlaid with architectural decoration.

So when one hears of the public rejection of Victorian architecture, maybe it was this short-lived effort to minimize embellishment of structure that is being referred to!

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A London museum nicknamed the Brompton Boilers. (media.vam.ac.uk/)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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2 Responses to Crystal Palace of the mods

  1. Anthony Regine says:

    OK, David , what do you consider to be the beginning of modern architecture??

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    • I’m not sure, Tony, and good to hear from you! But I suspect the beginning of modern architecture was with the design of factories by Behrens and then of houses and other buildings by Corbusier, Mies, Gropius and other early modernists, after the declaration by Loos of ornament as crime and after the reaction to WWI as requiring some sort of new architecture, however false that reaction was. Several facets of technology that eventually were used in modern architecture developed before that, of course, but that was not the beginning of modern architecture.

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