Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Joseph Paxton's Saint Cloud project

I've been reading more about Joseph Paxton, and it's interesting to see his final proposal for an iron'n'glass building (ferro-vitreous, as The Works of Joseph Paxton by Chadwick refers to it, rather unnecessarily) from 1861, for the good people of Paris. Obviously it shows some kind of a development from the Sydenham Crystal Palace, through the introduction of curvilinear spaces and domes. Chadwick thinks that it represents the most accomplished of Paxton's designs, but of course that is complicated by the serendipitous outcomes of constraints that made the CP so bloody iconic in the first place - without the tight budget and schedule, the CP could have been a much more Victorian, and thus less radical edifice - Paxton's scheme only really being chosen because nobody else could offer an on-budget and on-time tender (he himself told the retention enquiry that the Hyde Park CP was 'the simplest, the merest mechanical building that could be made')... The Sydenham Palace had a longer gestation time for the design to mature, and Paxton was determined that this would be his masterwork, but opinions were mixed as to whether that generated a greater, more impressive work, or a slip back into convention (a problem neatly summarised in the statement that the Sydenham version was 'more architectural'). I personally would say that the two buildings, although constructed from mostly the same material, are difficult to compare in terms of their cultural identities, the later building being obviously more 'composed', and more prone to melancholic interpretation due to its futile attempt at permanence.

Chadwick wonders if the Saint Cloud project pictured points to a line of development of the iron and glass aesthetic that was never fulfilled, and it's interesting to consider it in that fashion - I'm currently reading Houses of Glass, by Kohlmaier and von Sartory, and it's a good book, obviously Benjaminian in not only its subject matter but also the prose and taxonomic zeal. The authors state that 'With the end of the century these buildings vanished from the mental horizon like a fata morgana, like a shimmering soap bubble that could not survive the forces of the times and burst into tiny pieces.', and it is interesting (and not just in a steampunk way) to consider alternative ways in which the spirit of these delicate monsters could persist... In the meantime, have a look at this blog and their collection of images from the book.

p.s.- interesting fact: apparently Titus Salt attempted to purchase the Crystal Palace in 1852 for the purpose of turning it into a factory in Saltaire. Can you imagine the effect that could have had on the development of modernist architecture?

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