In June 1855, Sir Joseph Paxton, fresh from his triumphal construction of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition, presented to Parliament a plan for the most ambitious project to rebuild London since that of Christopher Wren. It amounted to constructing a continuous version of the Palace running for ten miles around Central London, foreshadowing the route of today’s Circle Line but extending south of the river as well.
Inside the glass-domed creation, known as the Great Victorian Way, would be dwellings, shops, roads and no less than eight railway lines, utilising, so Paxton hoped, the then recently-invented smokeless pneumatic railway technology. It was to be a Paradise in glass, liberating the Victorian capital from its cold, damp, smoke-filled climate.
The scheme would have been dismissed as a pipe dream along with similar ones circulating at the time, except for that fact that the Crystal Palace had been sensationally successful. Its glass and ribbed iron construction had a huge influence on the development of hi-tech architecture: Norman Foster says it marked “the birth of modern architecture, of pre-fabrication, of soaring spans of transparency”. It was made big profits, some of them invested in funds which support good causes to this day.
Unsurprisingly, a Commons select committee warmed to Paxton’s plan it and it was also endorsed by Prince Albert, the force behind the Great Exhibition. Paxton, who was an MP as well as an architect, was an impressive witness. A verbatim account of what he said can be found here.
But although Parliament authorised the creation of Paxton’s scheme in principle, the project soon ran into an unsurpassable obstruction – The Great Stink of 1858. The unbearable odours of London’s growing pollution stopped Parliament from operating. Something had to be done, and that something was the go-ahead instead for Joseph Bazalgette’s mind-bending proposal to build modern sewers under Central London for conveying its detritus down to east London instead of polluting the Thames upstream.
All Londoners should be eternally grateful for that decision, even though it meant abandoning Paxton’s glass circle plan. But even if it could have been built, it would never have survived the exponential growth of the world’s biggest city. It was, as one critic observed, “architecture by aspiration”.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.
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