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Impact of Iron & Steel in 19th-Century Architecture

Impact of Iron & Steel in 19th-Century Architecture
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  • 0:00 Buildings Have Gotten Taller
  • 0:40 Rising to New Heights
  • 1:17 Architecture of the…
  • 3:48 Modern Buildings
  • 4:42 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Explore the architecture of 19th century World's Fairs. Learn about the designers who engineered with iron and steel, building on industrial advances that made skyscrapers both possible and necessary for a modernizing Western world.

Buildings Have Gotten Taller

Why has Godzilla gotten so big? If you recall his first entrance in Japanese cinema, he reached a mere 50 meters. In the most recent blockbuster, he's ballooned to up to 150 meters in height. Is this a freak of evolution? The delayed effect of nuclear exposure?

The moviemakers explain that they had to make Godzilla bigger for the 21st century. As the cities grew bigger, taller, more massive in scale, so did Godzilla. In 60 years, he has tripled in size. It's not because of atomic fallout; it's to keep up with the scale of modern architecture!

Rising to New Heights

You may have seen photos of the men at work on construction of the Manhattan skyline in the 1930s. These photos can usually be found in high school history textbooks. The images highlight the risk of constructing these buildings. It may be tough to reconnect with the sense of immense heights to understand how immense the scale actually was.

Skyscrapers were only possible because of two 19th century achievements: first, the invention of a safe elevator, and second, the ability to mass produce steel and iron. Add to this the concentration of populations in urban centers, and you have the situation that makes skyscrapers not only possible, but necessary for progress.

Architecture of the World's Fairs

Two significant structures symbolize the importance of iron manufacturing for architecture: the Crystal Palace and the Eiffel Tower. Both appeared as nationalist symbols at the World's Fairs in 1851 and 1889, respectively.

The World's Fairs gripped the cultural imagination for over a century. They were spectacles of modern engineering, science, art, and industry, intended to boost economy, promote progress, and display the modern technical advances. The golden age of the fairs lasted from roughly 1850 to 1965. While fairs still exist, they now use the term 'Expo' and no longer promote the agenda of industrialism.

During the height of their authority, the fairs took many years to plan and realize, each in a bigger scale than the last. While much of the architecture was built for temporary purposes, there were also many structures built to last. The architecture of the fairs shows how designers and fair organizers valued modern engineering and art alongside each other in the display of technological and artistic mastery.

The first big World's Fair took place in 1851 and its symbol was the Crystal Palace. The Crystal Palace was designed like a greenhouse, which shouldn't come as much surprise considering the background of the architect and the constraints of mid-19th century interior lighting.

Joseph Paxton had a reputation for landscape architecture and gardens. Paxton designed the Crystal Palace to highlight the correspondence between natural botanicals and the advances in engineering and construction that made such grand structures possible.

The greenhouse motif brought in natural sunlight, which was really important for a mid-19th century gallery. In 1851, interiors were lit with gas. That smell would have been absent from the Crystal Palace.

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