The gardener who nurtured London's Crystal Palace

A lily-pad leaf was the inspiration for London's famed Crystal Palace, built in 1851. Joseph Paxton, the designer, was neither an architect nor an engineer, but head gardener to the Duke of Devonshire, a British peer.

Typical of his times and status in Victorian society, the duke favored extensive gardens and greenhouses for plants coming in from explorers all over the world. Private British collectors vied with Kew Botanical Gardens for exotic plant specimens and seeds.

The plant that spawned the famed Crystal Palace in London was first collected and sent back to England by Sir Robert Schomburgk, the discoverer of the pygmy hippo.

Paddling down a river in British Guiana, Sir Robert spied this vegetable wonder and described it as follows:

"A gigantic leaf from 5-6 feet in diameter, salver shaped with a broad rim of light green above and vivid crimson below, in form almost orbicular except that on one side it is slightly bent. (This is why I blamed the tilt I saw on a slight breeze). . . . Around the whole margin extended a rim 3-5 inches high, on the inside light green like the surface. . . on the outside like the leaf's lower surface, of a bright crimson. The ribs are very prominent -- almost an inch high, radiating from a common center.m

By 1846 the seeds Sir Robert sent back to Kew had germinated, although for three years they produced no flowers and little in the way of leaves.

Then in August 1849, Paxton wangled from Kew a small seedling with 6-inch leaves. To house it he had built a special heated tank with water circulated by water wheels of his own design. Within three months his sample flowered. The gigantic bud thrust through 11 raftlike leaves with 5-foot diameters.

The flowering, called Victoria regla, created a sensation in horticultural circles. Even the plant's namesake, the little Queen, expressed interest.

So in mid-November Paxton made the trip to Windsor to present her with a fully opened bud and a huge leaf. Many notables came to see the great plant at Chatsworth, the duke's estate. To test the strength and buoyancy of the great leaf, the duke one day, in the presence of visitors, set Paxton's seven-year-old daughter on one of the pads. It carried the child's weight without the least distortion.

But Paxton's success with Victoria regla produced problems as well as visitors. By September 1850 the original Kew seedling had produced 112 flower buds and 140 great leaves, already twice outgrowing its tank.

Paxton had for years been experimenting with all sizes, shapes, and materials for greenhouses, which, at that time, were generally clumsy lean-to affairs with short overlapping glass panes set in heavy frames.

For the new Lily House, Paxton took the leaf structure as his model, realizing that its understructure was a beautiful example of natural engineering.

Where the cantileverlike ribs radiated from the central stem, they were nearly two inches deep. There were large bottom flanges with very thin mid-ribs. Vegetative cross girders between every pair of ribs prevented buckling.

Later Paxton said: "Nature has provided the leaf with longitudinal and transverse girders and supports that I, borrowing from it, have adopted in this building."

In addition to its innovations, the new Lily House embodied some of Paxton's improvements from earlier structures. For example, for the duke's pine conservatory built in 1833, Paxton designed a V-shaped, ridge-and-furrow wood construction. In contrast to the lean-to shape, the ridge design admitted much more light from late-season oblique sunlight.

The glass rested on the top groove of Paxton's patented gutter, a light wood strip with three grooves.

The top groove, the deepest, carried off rainwater. The two inner grooves, one on each side, drained off the water of condensation.

Then, in 1837, he built the duke's Great Conservatory, at the time the largest glass house in the world. Because it required 40 miles of sash bar, Paxton promoted and helped design a special grooving machine, a first step toward prefabricated construction materials.

Sheet glass was then just coming into use for construction. A Birmingham manufacturer began making sheets a yard long. Appreciating the convenience of construction in multiples of four, Paxton persuaded the manufacturer to supply the larger sheets. Thus, the evolution and solution of one practical problem after another in earlier structures paved the way for the new Lily House, an innovative design that proved to be a working model for the Crystal Palace.

The flat-glass roof of the Lily House lay on light wood beams that were not only structural members but drainage units for both internal and external moisture. The water was carried off through hollow iron columns bolted to the floor.

The grooved wood sash tied the structure together into the lightest, strongest, most economical design imaginable.

Meantime, Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, had proposed an industrial exposition, the first international show of goods and manufacturers from around the world. The site was to be Hyde Park, and one huge building was to house all the exhibits.

After rejecting designs for the building submitted by more than 250 competitors, the building commission proposed a brick building. It was to be four times the length of Westminster Abbey and require at least 15 million bricks.

How could it possibly be built in time?

The public outcry caught Paxton's attention. In London, where he often was on the duke's business, he went to see a friend in Parliament. Paxton said he feared that the commission's proposal was another in a series of mistakes.Knowing Paxton's track record in ingenious and effective construction, the member of Parliament urged him at once to put forward possible alternatives.

Together the two men called on a building commission member. They learned there might be a provision for submitting alternative plans under the aegis of the commission.

To their astonishment, Paxton promised to submit complete plans within nine days. Then and there he decided to submit a design based on the Lily House -- all glass, wood, and metal. Next, he went to Hyde Park to step off the length and width of the required building and to gain a mental image of the site.

A few days later, while chairing a meeting, he appeared to be making a number of notes on a large rectangle of blotting paper (the original now in the Victoria and Albert Museum).

The rough sketch shows the cross section and elevation for a large metal-glass building.

In groupings of five, it calls for round- topped glass bays stepped up to a three-storied nave. In the finished building the proposed arrangement of exhibit galleries was almost identical with those on the blotting-paper sketch. Lacking interior walls, the glass galleries yielded 25 percent more space, an important consideration.

The scale-plan details were drawn up by Paxton's loyal and experienced staff from the duke's estate office. Within a week they turned out a completed plan depending neither on traditional style nor on materials.

The building would require an entire year's output of the British glass industry. It had to go up in nine months and house world treasures as well as thousands of visitors. Made of light, reusable materials, the Crystal Palace has been described as a tablecloth of wood and glass.

For figures on construction and materials, Paxton turned to men with whom he had worked out the duke's conservatories. The plan was based on multiples of eight throughout, with coordinated dimensions based on a 24-foot module. Within two weeks, without benefit of electronic calculators or computers, they came up with a set of figures for Paxton's building and another for the building commission's "white elephant." The latter figured out to a penny per cubic foot while Paxton's was just half that cost.

Paxton's glass-and-wood "tablecloth" would require:

-- 900,000 square feet of glass.m

-- 3,300 hollow iron columns.m

-- 2,224 light-iron-lattice supportinggirders.m

-- 205 miles of wooden sash bars.m

The material could all be prefabricated within three months.

It was all bolted together floor by floor and raised within three months. The building was designed to stand for six months, and yet it stood for 86 years , only to be destroyed by fire in 1936. It was an architectural first as a completely prefabricated structure from small, mass-produced, standardized parts.

In contrast to the laboriously laid buildings of brick and stone, it went up in 17 weeks.

The world takes for granted today the numerous architectural techniques and components which never existed before Paxton's Crystal Palace. Since Paxton's Lily House, architects continue to draw inspiration, if not technology, from design in nature.

Frank Lloyd Wright's interior ceiling design for the Johnson Wax building, for example, shows a series of slender columns terminating in large lily-pad shapes. The idea for Le Corbusier's Chapel Ronchamp in France could have been taken only from the shell and claws of a crab.

Awareness of design in nature is always rewarding -- and especially to a mind prepared.

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