Modular design in exhibitions

The Crystal Palace was a glass and cast iron structure built in London, England, for the Great Exhibition of 1851. The building was designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, an architect and gardener, and revealed breakthroughs in architecture, construction and design. In January 1850 a committee was formed to choose the design for a temporary exhibition building that would showcase the latest technologies and innovations from around the world: The “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations.” The structure had to be as economical as possible, and be built before the exhibition was scheduled to open on May 1st, 1851.

Using combinations of prefabricated cast iron, laminated wood, and standard sized glass sheets, Paxton created the “ridge-and-furrow” roof design. In 1836 this system was used for the first time in the “Great Stove” - the largest glass building at the time.

The design was based on a 10in x 49in module, the size of the largest glass sheet available at the time. The modular system consisted of right-angled triangles, mirrored and multiplied, supported by a grid of cast iron beams and pillars. These basic units were extremely light and strong and were extended to an incredible length of 564 meters.

Impressed by the low cost proposal, the committee accepted Paxton’s innovative plan, leaving only 8 months for construction, which commenced immediately in Hyde Park. 5000 workers handled more than 1000 iron columns and 84,000 square meters of glass. All parts were prefabricated and easy to erect, and every modular unit was self supporting, allowing the workers freedom in assembling the pieces. Thanks to Paxton’s simple and brilliant design, over 18,000 panes of glass sheets were installed per week, and the structure was completed within 5 months.

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