The Crystal Palaces (excerpt from Imaginary Cities) — Darran Anderson

There is music playing now in the coffee shop, the drive-in, the casino halls with their hidden exits and absence of clocks, strange terrible music. ‘There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow’ went the anthem of Disney’s Progressland. The history of futurology, the stage sets and the dress rehearsals of what’s to come, goes further back than Sputnik. With the steam-powered Moloch of the Industrial Revolution rampaging through the world, waves of expos and futuramas arrived to convince us that progress was indeed progress and not something to be entirely terrified of. Organised by the Bureau International des Expositions, the World’s Fairs manufactured awe to counter the dread of change. Until eclipsed by television (itself first appearing publicly at an exposition), they were the largest mass spectacles of their day, attracting millions of visitors and placing their respective cities amongst the guiding lights and benefactors of a new age. In a way, the exhibitions were modern cabinets of curiosities assembled not for the private pleasure of eccentric emperors but by governments buoyed by scientific ingenuity and by wealth extracted, often in the most savage ways, from their colonies. A sense of competitiveness (that would in time descend into all-out war) fuelled the movement. Here we find the city as emerging brand; San Francisco the earthquake survivor, Seattle as the gateway to Alaska, Panama the separator of continents, and so on.

The World’s Fairs had an ancestor in the dazzling temporary city erected at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, when the English and French aristocracies created fake palaces and towers to out-do one another (a dragon features on the painting marking the occasion for Henry VIII). It was also there in the Triumphal Procession and Arch of Maximilian I, rendered in their full clockpunk glory by Burgkmair, Dürer and others. It began again with a building of seeming impossibility—the ‘Great Shalimar’ of London’s Crystal Palace, a massive structure constructed with the leading new technology of plate glass. This was the largest ever seen. Within this Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations (1851), technological innovations (early fax and photographic prototypes, cult revolvers, public toilets) vied with imperial spoils such as the Koh-i-Noor and Daria-i-Noor diamonds and the Tara Brooch. So successful was it in framing London as the capital of the world (the old axis mundi position) and laying claims to the future and indeed, the past (with the building of the Albertopolis museum section of the city) that Paris felt the need to retaliate by erecting the Palais de l’Industrie at the heart of the Champs-Élysées. Where they had once built monuments to monarchs, they now built them to the machine king.

There were soon efforts to oppose and mitigate the alleged soullessness of these grand affairs and their worship of combustion engines, looms, rifles and stolen jewels. Marx railed against the effrontery of the bourgeois exhibitions at a time when inequities had brought workers to the brink of revolution. Analogies were made with earlier fallen civilisations:

“By putting on show the massed resources of modern industry in a small concentrated space, just at a time when modern bourgeois society is being undermined from all sides, it is also displaying materials which have been produced, and are still being produced day after day in these turbulent times, for the construction of a new society. With this exhibition, the bourgeoisie of the world has erected in the modern Rome its Pantheon, where, with self-satisfied pride, it exhibits the gods which it has made for itself.”

Marx was right with the diagnosis but wrong with the prognosis. Revolution would certainly come but the world championed in the exhibitions would not fall. The tragedy would find itself articulated in Calvary architecture; the parched bone-white wedding cake of the Sacre Coeur would rise over Paris as a reminder of the butchered Communards, Franco’s Valle de los Caídos would be built on the dead of the Spanish Popular Front.

Even the organisers realised, however, that technical prowess was not enough to truly sell their takes on the future. They would need to humanise their exhibits. It helped that the displayed locomotive had a suitably Arthurian name – The Lady of the Lake – but how they brought soul to the exhibition space was an innovation, acting as a bridge between feudal musical pageantry and the terrible and glorious coming world of lift muzak, film soundtracks and Eno’s site-specific ambience. They commissioned an assemblage of safely conservative European music to inaugurate and fill the space, including a triumphal fanfare by Daniel Auber (who would die in the midst of the Paris Revolution to come), William Sterndale Bennett’s imaginatively-titled Ode Written Expressly for the Opening of the International Exhibition and an overture march by Giacomo Meyerbeer, with Verdi’s choral collage of the future British, French and Italian national anthems championing the spirit of fraternal competition (the paradox underlined by the fact he missed the deadline).

There was no shortage of marvels in the exhibitions that followed. The monumental icons immediately caught the imagination with the Statue of Liberty proving hugely popular; her arm and torch were exhibited at Centennial International Exhibition Philadelphia, 1876, followed by her disembodied head at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1878. For all the impact, many of the monuments proved to be relative dead ends, with even the mighty Crystal Palace merely providing the template for greenhouses. Catalan Modernisme and the Moorish revivalism of the Neo-Mudéjar style, as celebrated in the exposition of 1888 and the building of the Ciutadella Park, may have offered dazzling routes for Art Nouveau and organic design to enter the forthcoming century, but its primary achievement was bringing attention to Barcelona as one of the great cities of the world.

By contrast, the smaller technological prototypes on display profoundly changed all the cities of the future and the lives of the people who inhabited them. They did this mainly by extending our reach, in terms of space and time. The electric light extended our lives into the night after the Place de l’Opéra had first been bathed in arc light and Westinghouse/Tesla had defeated Edison in the War of the Currents by illuminating the White City of the Chicago Columbian Exposition. Jules Verne’s fiction was revolutionised immediately by witnessing electricity at the Exposition Universelle. He was one of many. Photographs and phonographs soon meant we could view and listen to the dead as well as distant invisible orchestras. Telephones and telegrams enabled us to communicate across mountain ranges and oceans. The links between cities became discernible, if labyrinthine, networks. The artists of the Art Nouveau era had pointed this out first with the phenomenal surges of creativity between Glasgow, Barcelona, Vienna and Paris. It was hoped the public and diplomats would follow, though many were too busy watching Annie Oakley performing her sharpshooting skills or admiring the 1,500-pound chocolate Venus de Milo on display.

The expositions gave birth to alternative versions of the cities we now know. These came in the form of buildings which were briefly conjured into life and then just as quickly vanished, existing only in sepia photographs and hand-coloured postcards, the ghosts of which haunt the places where they once stood. There was the vast ornate hangar the Palais des Machines, which would contain thousands of machines like a steampunk treasure trove, as well as circuses and a velodrome, before it was demolished because it was spoiling a bureaucrat’s view. The sculptor (and co-architect of the Cubist House), Raymond Duchamp-Villon, recalled the wonder of visiting it as a boy: “I remember very clearly a hallucinatory passage through the brightness of the nave in a travelling crane, above whirlpools of twisting reptilian belts, creakings, whistles, sirens, and black caverns containing circles, pyramids, and cubes.”

The golden door entrance to Sullivan’s long-gone Transportation Building from the 1893 World’s Fair became synonymous with the entering of other worlds. Based on a Roman basilica, the polychromic effect was designed to dazzle as if stepping inside not a building but an artwork: “as regard the colours themselves, they comprise nearly the whole galaxy, there being not less than thirty different shades of colour employed. These, however, are so delicately and softly blended and so nicely balanced against each other that the final effect suggests not so much many colours as a single beautiful painting.”

In time, they demolished the golden door, and with it, the galaxy of colour inside. The illuminated Tower of Jewels came down after San Francisco’s World’s Fair of 1915. The Bastille was re-erected in Paris; it was replaced for over thirty years by the eventually rat-infested Elephant of the Bastille, home to the fictional Gavroche and his kin in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. The Crystal Palace burned down after an inopportune use of wood, as did the three-times-the-size of St Paul’s Viennese Rotunda with its caged wild animals and living curiosities on stages, and the enormous cathedral of the Sydney Garden Palace. The palatial Moorish-revival Horticultural Hall in Philadelphia was unprepared for the advance of Hurricane Hazel. The only proof we have that they ever existed, now that they are beyond first-hand memory, are traces of silver oxide paper, celluloid or poetry: “All so completely gone. Alas! ‘twould seem / as though the ‘Garden Palace’ was a dream, / or bright creation by a master hand, / which vanished at the same supreme command.”

They exist little more now than as the planned buildings that were never built, like the half a mile-high concrete pleasure lighthouse, the Phare du Monde, with a spiralling helter-skelter for automobiles that led to a hotel complex, and views extending all the way across France to Spain and England: “The project appears far removed from the visionary,” Modern Mechanix tried to claim, “and a new all-time ‘high’ in buildings seems in a fair way to being achieved.”

It exists only within the pages of that magazine. Though it was built and for a time proved hugely popular, Wyld’s Great Globe proved too odd to be included officially in the Great Exhibition. Its creator, the mapmaker James Wyld, had an addiction to the fictive, dreaming up votes from nonexistent voters to reach parliament and providing guides to the underground with non-existent stations. The Monster Globe, as it was nicknamed, was made real for a time, a 60-foot-wide sphere with a staircase inside, from which could be viewed a three-dimensional inside-out representation of the earth’s surface, minus Antarctica, which he’d dismissed as a fable. Banished from the Crystal Palace as a suspected shyster, he built the Globe in Leicester Square Gardens, at the time “a ‘wilderness’ or ‘desert’ littered with garbage and haunted by stray cats and ne’re-do-well youths.” Though it attracted over a million visitors, the building was doomed due to Wyld’s disreputable tendencies. He ended up in court cases with almost every collaborator, invented lectures on fanciful subterranean civilisations, threw away a statue of the former king which had once stood on the spot (its horse and decapitated head were found later) and tried to engineer a robbery to steal counterfeit gold nuggets. The Alhambra-esque touches to the Globe’s entrance were complemented by the minareted Royal Panopticon of Science and Art (“western technology in an eastern pleasure dome”) which joined it on the site; “Wyld’s illusion seemed to undo the Copernican revolution: humankind was once again at the centre of the universe.”

The illusion appealed to Victorian sensibilities to make a ‘temple of geography’; religious, scientific and imperial. It barely mattered that it was a Plaster of Paris artifice and a magnificent fraud; that too was symbolic and fitting. Even more fraudulent was Coney Island Globe Tower, designed by Samuel Friede in 1906, with its eleven storeys containing a circus, skating rink, bowling alley and casino, all amounting to a Ponzi scheme. Whether buildings like these were built or not, they dissipated in time like a morning dream.

“Oh, where are the snows of yesteryear!” wrote François Villon, the finest poet ever to have killed a priest in a knife-fight, recounting the loss of mythic characters in an age, as he saw it, when genius was left to wrack and ruin. In piques of nostalgia, we might turn our eyes from skyscrapers that seem more CGI than imaginary, now that architects draw with 3D programs, and consider the futures of yesteryear. Where is the Skylon that levitated on cables like a silver slash through the sky, that “glittering riddle of a symbol, like some genie’s device in Arabian Nights“? Melted down and sold as scrap and souvenirs, the rest propelled into the Thames under Churchill’s orders to remove all suggestion of a socialist future. Misha Black’s South Bank Exhibition building sadly followed it into oblivion, “a kind of interplanetary edifice more or less suspended in the sky’ [. ..] based around the framework of a spiral ramp from which the buildings would rise in terraces reaching 1,500 feet, topped by a vertical feature that anticipated the Festival’s Skylon.”

Skylon itself had been inspired by the Trylon spire built for the New York World’s Fair 1939, accompanied by a large Perisphere, which was “lit at night in a manner to create the optical illusion of clouds . . . racing around its surface. On Halloween, it was transformed into a giant jack-o-lantern.”

Inside the sphere, viewers on moving platforms could gaze upon the miniature Democracity: “It’s attractive and sensible at the same time . . . priest and farmer and miner and housewife . . . men and women of all nations . . . they are marching in triumph. . . they have triumphed over chaos . . . they have built the World of Tomorrow.”

LIFE heralded the city – “Henry Dreyfuss fills huge hollow ball with a glimpse of the future,” the article informed readers, “traffic never intersects. Pedestrians walk at different levels from automobiles…” In a brief glimpse of the alienation effect, the spell is broken and the real world of the day shone through with reference to the soundtrack “written for the show by William Grant Still, Negro composer . . . has been providing a busy background for the spectacle of daily life.”

In the real world of tomorrow, Trylon and Perisphere were melted down to use as armaments to be dropped on Nazi Germany. In its comic book afterlife, it became the headquarters of the superhero group All-Star Squadron, who were roped in to fight the Axis forces forty years after the event.

Nowhere is the tragedy of the once-built more keenly felt than in those whose fall signalled the cancellation of a surely certain future. The Glasgow Empire Exhibition of 1938 was attended by 13 million visitors, passing by the constructivistic Tait Tower (‘a modest cousin to Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument for the Third International’). Such was the incandescent Scotland-shaped Futurism of the building that postcards of it came inscribed ‘This is a real photograph’. The postcard is almost all that remains. The building was torn down (though its concrete foundations remain) with the excuse it would be a beacon for German bombers, but its demise says more about the authorities· attitude towards Glasgow.


Darran Anderson is the author of Imaginary Cities. He writes on architecture, culture and technology. Anderson is a former co-editor of The Honest Ulsterman, and is also the author of a 33 1/3 study of Histoire de Melody Nelson by Serge Gainsbourg. His forthcoming memoir, Tidewrack, about the river Foyle in Derry, will be published by Chatto & Windus.

Reprinted with permission from Imaginary Cities, by Darran Anderson. © 2016 Published in the United States by the University of Chicago Press and in the UK and worldwide by Influx Press. All rights reserved.

Image: View from the Knightsbridge Road of The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park for Grand International Exhibition of 1851. Dedicated to the Royal Commissioners., London: Read & Co. Engravers & Printers, 1851.