In Bill Bryson’s latest book (At Home: A Short History of Private Life), a definite recommended read, he notes the open design competition for a great exhibition building garnered 245 designs, all of which were rejected by the Royal Commission!
When Joseph Paxton, a head gardener for the Duke of Devonshire’s estate (Chatsworth House), learned that no viable design was in the offing, it occurred to him a design for a great hall along the lines of his hothouses might work.
“He doodled a rough design on a piece of blotting paper and had completed drawings ready for review in two weeks,” writes Bryson. He submitted the design, even though the competition deadline had passed. His modular, prefabricated design was an enormous glass hall held together by interconnected iron trusses. The whole thing just sat on the ground like a tent with no foundation other than wooden floors (prohibited by the competition because of the fire hazard).
Architectural consultants noted Paxton had no training in architecture. Paxton had, however, already designed and installed an enormous tropical cast-iron framed greenhouse (the Great Stove) for the Duke of Devonshire. Great Stove was so large that Queen Victoria toured its interior plant collection in a horse-drawn carriage. Paxton also designed and installed for the duke the Emperor Fountain in 1844, a spectacular achievement of hydraulic engineering that jetted water 290 feet high, an unprecedented marvel of its time.
Despite his lack of engineering “credentials,” and fears that such a glass edifice would blow away in a storm or rain down glass panels on people’s heads, the Royal Commission accepted Paxton’s novel design. The great glass exhibition hall was built in a mere 35 weeks. It housed 14,000 exhibitions from around the world and was a dazzling success.
It’s noteworthy that Paxton is credited with designing the world’s first municipal park (at Birkenhead near Liverpool). Bryson writes: “This park so captivated the American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted that he modeled Central Park in New York on it.”