Transept of the Crystal Palace, 1851, the center of the Steampunk Architecture Universe.
Six years or so ago, I wrote a blog post titled “Steampunk Architecture” in which I gave a short description of several examples of real-life architecture that reflect the Steampunk Aesthetic. Since then it has been one of the most popular posts on my blog. I’ve also presented it as ta talk at the Bay Area’s steampunk con, Clockwork Alchemy.
As luck would have it, I had updated my presentation significantly in preparation for Clockwork Alchemy 2020 which subsequently caught the coronavirus and was postponed until 2021 (we hope). However, I want to present some of my talk here.
Full disclosure, I’m not an architect or a historian, but I am interested in how architecture reflects its society and vice versa, how society affects the architecture it builds. The Victorian Age was such a transformative time with huge changes in social, economic, and technological arenas. The architecture that was built in that time artifacts of that era.
So, what is Steampunk Architecture?
Yes, what is it indeed? Given that the many steampunk universes that exist are all fictional, how can there be real-life Steampunk Architecture?
Well, we know what the standard Steampunk Aesthetic is–vaguely Victorian with an overlay of superfluous detail and quasi-functional mechanisms. While there are many variations of this aesthetic (and I’m not going to get bogged down in the arguments about what is and isn’t steampunk), the big tent that is Steampunk contains all manner of variations on these design features.
So let’s take this Steampunk Aesthetic and see how it might have existed in the Real World –the mundane one that we live in, or at least in which our 19th century ancestors did. At the beginning of the 19th century, building materials were stone, brick, plaster, and wood. Any decoration was applied by hand by painting or carving. By the 1830s or so, the steam engine was being refined and soon it was applied to the fabrication of building materials. Steam powered saws, lathes, drills, etc. reduced the cost of building materials and put non-functional building decorations into the hands of the middle class, and on otherwise utilitarian and industrial buildings.
Similarly, the introduction of new building materials enabled bigger, more elaborate and just more impressive buildings. Cast iron, and eventually, steel support beams provided the skeletons of 19th century buildings instead of bricks and stone. Improvements in the production of window glass created larger panes, allowing more light into buildings. Inexpensive ass-produced ornamentation fed the Victorians’ desire for endless design details.
The Crystal Palace
Let’s start with the Crystal Palace as it epitomizes the novel architecture that was enabled by both new materials and new building techniques. In the early 1850s, the powers that be in Britain organized the Great Exposition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, a sort of world’s fair to promote, despite its name, mainly British industry. A committee was organized to come up with a building to house this Exposition, large enough to fit all the exhibits yet able to be built rapidly and inexpensively. A contest was held to generate designs, but none were deemed worthy. The committee came up with their own design which looked like it was designed, well, by a committee.
Into the fray came Joseph Paxton, a gardener and builder of greenhouses of novel design. His design proposal essentially scaled up the size of his greenhouses, using the largest panes of glass available (10 x 49 inches), cast iron supports that also served as gutters to drain rainwater from the roof, and arches large enough to encompass huge elm trees that found themselves confined within the immense “Crystal Palace”.
The Crystal Palace was 1,848 ft (563 m), 408 feet (124 m) wide and 108 feet (33 m) high. It required 4,500 tons of iron, 60,000 sq ft (5,600 m2) of timber and needed over 293,000 panes of glass. Yet it took 2,000 men just eight months to build, and cost just £79,800.
Opening of the Great Exhibition by Queen Victoria.
The concept of enclosing wide expanses within a skin of glass was incorporated into the design of many different new buildings: Paddington and St. Pancras railway stations in London were built soon after using variations on the Crystal Palace design. Shopping arcades across Europe were built with arched glass roofs to allow light in while keeping weather out. Museums, such as the Oxford University Museum of Natural History used the natural light provided by glass roofs to good effect to display their exhibits.
Crossness Pumping Station
One might expect that state-of-the-art architecture might be reserved for special events such as the Great Exhibition, but no, even the most mundane industrial building could do with a coat of Steampunk Aesthetic.
In 1858, after several decades of cholera outbreaks and miasmatic odors which almost forced Parliament to leave town one particularly hot summer, Joseph Bazalgette was commissioned to design a proper system to deal with London’s sewage which until then flowed directly into the River Thames. Bazalgette designed a system which collected the capital’s waste into an efficient system of pipes and tunnels and directed it 14 miles downstream where it was there dumped into the Thames. The grade was so gradual, however, that pumping stations were needed to ensure the sewage was discharged well away from the capital. The Crossness Pumping Station was opened in 1865 and has been called, “a Victorian cathedral of ironwork”. The polychromed cast iron is completely superfluous–the design has no utility–but is a great example of the exuberance on top of utility philosophy that the Steampunk Aesthetic embodies.
Modern boilers that power the vintage pumps at Crossness Pumping Station (Photo: Peter Scrimshaw)
The Prince Consort main pump beam (Photo: Steve Bell)
Fortunately, when Crossness was finally closed in the 1950s, it was not economical to remove the pumps, so they remained forgotten and untouched, waiting for the renovation of the site which started in the 1980s and continues. Today, Covid-permitting, the pumping station is open on weekends for tours.
The Abbey Mills Pumping Station which is on the north bank of the Thames served the same purpose–getting sewage out of the city as efficiently as possible. While not quite as over the top as Crossness, the pumphouse is built in a Byzantine style. It is also open for tours.
Abbey Mills Pumping Station
Revival Styles and other oddities
When creating architectural details became easier and less expensive in the 19th century, immitating the architectural styles of the past became possible. A wide variety of “Revival” styles became popular. Greek, Italianate, Gothic, even Egyptian revival styles became popular especially in America. The Greek Revival style resembled classical Greek temples and continued the interest in symmetric columned buildings that started with the Federalist and Georgian styles. Italianate Revival buildings hope to emulate Italian villas, Gothic Revival medieval cathedrals, and Egyptian Revival the buildings and art of the pharoahs. While these styles may predate Steampunk by a bit, they are the basis of much that would come.
Egyptian Revival Medical College of Virginia.
Greek Revival House.
Gothic Revival House
Carson Mansion, Eureka, California.
The Queen Anne style, which is particular mostly to North America is an eclectic mix of many different styles. The Carson Mansion in Eureka, California is a singular example of this exorbitant style. The spindles, corbels, turnings, and window frames are all made from Northern California redwood. While it is not possible to tour the interior, the private club that owns the Carson Mansion has many photos on their website. It just goes to show what you can build when you have the means and you happen to own the local lumber mill.
Another interesting American vernacular house style is the Octagonal House. Orson Squire Fowler, a free thinker of the first half of the 1800s in the USA, dabbled in such wide-ranging topics as phrenology, eugenics, womens’ suffrage, and abolitionism, and also worked to popularize the octagon house as providing the most floor space for the least amount of lumber. Interior rooms were mainly rectangular with the diagonal corners used for service areas, pantries, and laundries. The Armour-Stiner House, pictured below, is one of the best examples of this style. Octagon houses were built all across the US, and those remaining have been catalogued. Compared to octagonal houses, houses based on other polygons are almost non-existent.
Armour-Stiner House, Irvington, New York. Source: JMReidy on panoramio.com
If octagonal houses are efficient, as least as believed by Fowler, a round house must be the epitome of residential architecture. In fact, I know of only one round home in the US, the Enoch Robinson House, built in1856 in Somerville, Massachusetts (my home town!) The house was vacant and decaying for some time, but a contractor has bought and restored it recently. Apparently the rooms in this house are sectors with the center of the house occupied by a staircase. Difficult to find furniture that would fit properly, I would think.
The Enoch Robinson House. Photo from a post card, maybe early 1900s? Notice the majestic elm tree in front.
I started this blog post with the Crystal Palace, one of the first “International Expositions”, so it is only fitting that I finish with two other examples of structures that reflect the audacity that typifies the Steampunk Aesthetic.
In 1875, France gave the United States a monumental statue entitled Liberty Enlightening the World” to celebrate the US centennial. The statue was designed by the artist Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. A French engineer was tasked with designing the framework upon which the copper sheets making up the statue were attached. Gustav Eiffel worked alongside the artist to erect the statue at his workshop in Paris. When completed, it was disassembled and shipped to America.
Liberty rising over the rooftops of Paris before being disassembled and shipped to America.
Unfortunately, the US wasn’t quite ready for Liberty as fundraising for its pedestal was lagging. The arm with the torch was exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia as well as in Madison square in New York to drum up funds. It wasn’t until 1886 that the finished Statue on its pedestal was dedicated.
Liberty’s arm and torch at the Centennial Exposition. Note the people who paid 50 cents to climb up to the torch.
The Statue of Liberty, of course, was not the last monumental structure Eiffel would design. As part of the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, Eiffel built the tallest tower at that time (a record it would hold for 41 years). The contract Eiffel managed to negotiate gave him the proceeds for the entrance fees during the Exposition and for the next twenty years. When time came to tear down the Tower, it had become useful for communications, so like many other “temporary” structures built for World’s Fairs, it became permanent and is now an indelible symbol of France.
Eiffel Tower during construction
Eiffel Tower as it looked during the Exposition Universelle in Paris.
There you have it. The history of Steampunk architecture from one international fair to another. There are many other examples of Steampunk architecture, such as the Edison Building in Los Angeles with exposed cast ironwork in a sky-lit atrium (used as Sebastian’s apartment in Blade Runner). In Liege, Belgium is an astronomical observatory built in the medieval revival style. Does an observatory need to look like a castle? No, but why not, as long as the telescope’s functions isn’t hampered!
So what’s your favorite example of architecture that encompasses the Steampunk Aesthetic? I’d love to learn about it!
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Thank you for this excellent and interesting piece. It’s a shame that you aren’t able to deliver it & thereby add another dimension of entertainment.
Fabulous selections! Thank you for sharing your talk and examples.