The 19th-century fascination with ruins was more than romantic affectation. It reflected a growing awareness of the fraught relationship between nature and technology – an anxiety that would soon find expression in the glass and iron palaces of the industrial age
The most potent architectural symbol of the 19th century was the ruin. The passion for ruins was not merely contemplative; aristocrats visited the fragments of Rome on their grand tours, but they also frequently returned home to build their own stylised ruin-grottoes on their country estates, such as Stowe House, and the progressive collapse of existing buildings would be deliberately arrested to create pleasing scenes.
In the same way that new cultures of individualism and the authenticity of emotions found their expression in the literature of the Romantic age, so the ruin – incomplete, broken – came to be seen as a figure that transcended the stale order of the classical architectural world.
The ruin also stood as a metaphor for the fraught relationship between nature and technology. As industrialisation gathered pace, and as "dark satanic mills" testified to our capacity to destroy that which until recently had seemed utterly impervious, "Nature" became an important source of inspiration for art and culture. Pre-industrial revolution ruins which had been regarded as eyesores began to be appreciated as aesthetically harmonious points of rest between human technology and the natural environment.
The fountain in the transept in the centre of Crystal Palace
The development of commercially viable cast iron and plate glass, however, created a revolution in construction and before long the 19th-century technology was capable of creating structures of unprecedented scale and lightness. This new technology also made possible entirely new spatial typologies, and many major social changes of this era took place in these new kinds of space: the rise of mass transport was accommodated under the new railway sheds, while the birth of consumer capitalism and the first testaments to globalisation would occur in the series of gigantic exhibition halls inaugurated by the Crystal Palace of 1851.
Arcades and later department stores used the new materials to create bright, open spaces for buying goods, and winter gardens used the very latest industrial technology to create fictionalised environments, vignettes of perfected nature. Like "the ruin", these new iron and glass environments were displays of nature's beauty but they were also aware of nature's chaotic imbalances. It was in winter gardens that nature was for the first time artificially protected from itself.
The lightness and sparsity of the material made the public uncomfortable: it couldn't possibly be stable. Some architects frequently refused to acknowledge these buildings as architecture at all, due to their vulgar expressions of engineering and their lack of monumentality; others revelled in their ghostly intangibility.
The Victorian architectural historian James Fergusson described the Crystal Palace as "the most fairy-like production of Architectural Art that had yet been produced"; the art critic Elizabeth Eastlake was typical in her description of it as "a region still more dreamlike than anything which even fond memory had retained of the past [...] Hour after hour finds us in wandering mazes lost – the sport of impressions gone as soon as formed, all rapid, vivid, but fleeting".
So while the fragility of the ruin was the result of nature drawing humanity's heaven-ward endeavours back to earth, the fragility of the iron and glass buildings was present from their very birth. When filled with ivy and creeping plants, a winter garden could easily resemble some strange futuristic version of the decaying church in Caspar David Friedrich"s 1824 painting "The Eldena Ruin". And the very first iron-framed building, built near Stuttgart in 1789, was actually a winter garden that abutted a faux-ruin.
Paxton and Burton's Great Conservatory at Chatsworth
From a 21st-century perspective, it's often hard to see how ambiguous these buildings were. Modernist architects saw a period when engineer-geniuses such as Brunel were shaking off the weight of historicism which had been holding back the rationalist freedoms of the new age. To see it this way they had to deliberately ignore the mix of romanticism, melancholy, nature, technology and futurism evoked by the new palaces of iron and glass.
Decimus Burton's 1848 Palm House at Kew, for example, is delicate, sinuous, dreamy. Or take the rebuilt Crystal Palace of 1854: part museum, concert hall, shopping arcade, university and art gallery, this surreal environment was covered in a mass of foliage. The winter garden built in 1871 by King Ludwig II of Bavaria sat on the roof of his palace in Munich – a state of-the-art companion to his archetypal romantic fairy-tale castle at Neuschwanstein. These are all instances of how iron and glass architecture inherited and yet abstracted the melancholy aesthetics of the ruin, creating a new and more potent form which we might call modern romanticism.
The thousands of iron and glass palaces built in the 19th century are mostly gone, but the problems of the relationship between "nature" and "technology" that they embodied remain. For all the rapid developments in recent years, it's as yet unclear how they will be deployed in an attempt to deal with the increasingly hostile global environment.
We can already see attempts in architecture – buildings everywhere are being covered in green walls, solar panels are springing up across roofs and biological metaphors abound. This all reflects a genuine desire to do something about the massive changes that are taking place, but there are so many conflicting voices that it is difficult to know what a truly sustainable architecture would be at this point.
The Galerie des Machines, Paris Expo, 1889
At one extreme is the "hard-green" aesthetic of mud-walls and compost toilets – an architecture which once again appears to reject modern technology as ugly, and perhaps even immoral. Some seek to drape conventional architecture in coats of green – Stefano Boeri's under construction "Vertical Forest" is a series of residential towers in Milan which will be completely festooned with trees. Other architectures seem to simply carrying on with style-as-usual: Foster's Masdar research centre (Icon 093) appears to be typical early 21st-century design despite its zero-carbon status.
More complex visions can be found in the work of François Roche, whose small projects such as "I'm lost in Paris", with its overgrown foliage and ominous bacteria farm (Icon 090) frequently play with the threatening sublime of nature, or the ambiguous victories of technology against it. It's also worth rediscovering the failed architectures of the 1970s, a period whose anxieties much resemble our own.
The bio-domes and bucolic-tech of that period, which were killed off by the oil crisis and the onset of the brash 1980s, were similar in scope to the enclosed nature of the winter gardens; they testified to the same dreams and nightmares evoked by our technological interventions into natural systems. In the work of Buckminster Fuller, his space age visions intersected with environmental anxiety – his proposal to build a geodesic dome over all of Manhattan is just one extreme example.
Of course, many of these tensions can be seen in the strongest contender for the architectural language of the future: digital design and manufacturing. Some practitioners explicitly seek out biomorphic forms that mimic natural structures that have appeared through millions of years of evolutionary refinement, and much research goes into producing high-performance digitally designed and manufactured analogies for the skins of pine cones or cell membranes.
These are exciting developments, perhaps akin to a 21st-century Jugendstil, but the field of digital design is still dominated by a vague symbolic formalism and its powers to generate form have been harnessed to create brilliant but wasteful metaphors. Think of the many "waves", "flowers", "rolling hills" or "river pebbles" that Zaha Hadid produces and then think how tenuous these natural aspirations actually are.
The interior of the Crystal Palace, c. 1860
Zaha Hadid's temporary concert pavilion in Manchester, 2009 (image: Zaha Hadid Architects)
Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes (image: Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller)
François Roche's "I'm Lost in Paris" house, 2008 (image: Alexis Armanet)
Stefano Boeri's "Vertical Forest" project, in Milan (image: Stefano Boeri)