The complete guide to crystal palaces

Crystal Palace Centre South Transept after 1911 From the spectacular glasshouse built for the Great Exhibition to the tropical greenhouses at Kew and the controversial Louvre pyramid, Josephine Martin celebrates our love of glass buildings.

A touch of glass - where did it start?

At the Crystal Palace, built to house the Great Exhibition in London's Hyde Park from 1 May until 15 October 1851. It was designed by Joseph Paxton in just 10 days, and incorporated 10 million feet of glass. The newly opened railway network allowed materials and men to be brought in from all over the country, cutting the time it took to build. The period between the final acceptance of Paxton's design on 26 July 1850 and the opening of the exhibition on May Day 1851 was only a little over nine months, which rather puts the Millennium Dome to shame.

The building was designed specifically to impress, and the exhibition it contained was conceived to celebrate the military, economic and industrial superiority of Great Britain and its colonies. Some called it the "Palace of the People" as it provided popular entertainment for the masses; Colonel Charles de Laet Waldo Sibthorpe MP, however, called it "a transparent humbug and bauble" and pressed for its removal from Hyde Park as soon as the exhibition finished. It was very popular not only with the general public but also with royalty, who visited in droves. Apart from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who were frequently seen there, the Shah of Persia, Tsar Alexander II and the Sultan of Zanzibar all visited Paxton's Crystal Palace.

What happened to it?

In 1852 it was agreed that Hyde Park should be returned to its original state, but that Crystal Palace should be preserved. The entire structure was moved to Sydenham Hill in south-east London and surrounded by vast gardens designed by Edward Milner. The result was a 19th-century antecedent of Las Vegas. The grounds included a series of magnificent fountains comprising almost 12,000 individual jets, the largest of which threw water 120ft in the air.

The fountains were later grassed over and converted into a sports ground which was used for FA Cup Finals until 1914, and from which the Crystal Palace football team get their name (even though they have since moved downhill to Selhurst Park). It was also used as a meeting place for many Victorian societies and organisations, including the National Temperance League. In 1934 John Logie Baird established his television company in the Crystal Palace.

In November 1936 the palace was largely destroyed by fire, the cause of which is still a mystery; now only the park remains, which is a Grade-II listed site.

Was it simply a glorified greenhouse?

Not at all. The Crystal Palace was a magnificent and exciting example of contemporary architecture designed to celebrate the achievements of British innovation. Besides, the Victorians didn't need any more greenhouses - they already had plenty. Syon Park is the west London home of the Duke of Northumberland, whose Great Conservatory inspired Paxton in his designs for the Crystal Palace. Syon Park was built as a show house for the duke's collection of exotic plants, and sits in gardens designed by "Capability" Brown.

While you are in the area, visit the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, a Unesco World Heritage Site with some of the world's finest surviving 19th-century glasshouses. The most famous of these is the Palm House, which was created to house the exotic palms being collected and introduced to Europe in early Victorian times. The technology used in the design by Decimus Burton is borrowed from shipbuilding - you can see that that the roof is very similar to an upturned hull.

The other glasshouses for which Kew is celebrated include the small, lovely but very humid Waterlily House, the Princess of Wales Conservatory which opened in 1987 and the Temperate House.

Do people still make crystal palaces?

Yes: just look at Nicholas Grimshaw's dazzling Eurostar Terminal at Waterloo Station in London. He was also responsible for the massive conservatories at the Eden Project in Bodelva, Cornwall, built in an abandoned china-clay pit. The main attractions are the two giant Teflon-glazed, bubble-like conservatories - the Humid Tropics Biome and the Warm Temperate Biome - which house plants from all over the world. It is described as a "living theatre of plants and people" and is not only entertaining but also of educational and environmental interest: the head of science at the Eden Project, Professor Ghillean Prance, was most recently the head of Kew Gardens, adding scientific credibility to what is often regarded as simply a kind of horticultural theme park.

Is this horticultural enthusiasm limited to the UK?

Not at all. The Tradgardsforeningen in Gothenburg, Sweden, is a 19th-century garden planted alongside the city moat and is one of the city's most attractive parks. It boasts a large Palm House designed as a reduced-size copy of London's Crystal Palace and a Butterfly House which contains butterflies from Asia and the Americas.

Spain also has a copy of the Crystal Palace. The Palacio de Cristal in Madrid was designed by Velazquez Bosco in 1887 for the Philippines Exposition held in the Parque de Retiro in the capital. It used both the Crystal Palace and the Palm House at Kew as models. Originally constructed to exhibit plants and flowers from Spain's former colony, it now houses temporary exhibitions curated by the Reina Sofia Museum.

Gardening isn't really my scene. How about a bit of sparkle??

For some really glittering interior design, the Salle des Glaces at the Château de Versailles can't be beaten. At 75m long, this ballroom sports 17 huge mirrors on one side and an equal number of windows on the other, looking out on to the gardens. The ceiling drips with crystal chandeliers.

Paris itself is crammed with all things crystalline: one of the most renowned (and controversial) glass constructions of recent years is the pyramid at the entrance to the Louvre. Designed by the Chinese-American architect IM Pei, this pyramid is made of completely colourless and non-reflective glass that diffuses daylight into the underground galleries of the museum. At first, the cleaning of this vast structure was undertaken by mountaineers who scaled the glass sides, but this soon proved to be too dangerous and they were replaced with a robot.

With the added advantage of combining shopping with sight-seeing, the Galeries Lafayette at 40 Boulevard Haussmann is one of the largest department stores in Paris and is the proud owner of a magnificent Art Nouveau domed glass roof. Fortunately this has not suffered the same fate as the staircase of the same period which did not survive renovations.

Anything closer to home?

The Vilar Floral Hall in Covent Garden, London, is a pretty good bet. This beautiful building has a wonderful glass roof and façade, a wall of mirrors at one end, and much of the interior is also furnished in glass. It used to be the Covent Garden Flower Market. Following its recent restoration, it is now attached to the Royal Opera House.

I quite fancy my own crystal palace

The glass factories on the Venetian island of Murano are good places to find interesting and unusual glass in almost any form imaginable. Also of interest is the Museo Vetraio on Murano which features pieces dating back to the 1st century and examples of Murano glass from the 15th century.

While you're in Italy, the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele in Milan, known as il salotto di Milano (Milan's drawing-room) due to the abundance of chic cafés, is a wonderful place to indulge in some people-watching, despite the extortionate price of a coffee. Almost totally destroyed during the Second World War, this is now one of Milan's crowning glories with its vast cruciform glass-domed roof flooding the gallery with light.

One of the first buildings in Europe to employ glass and iron as structural elements, it was designed by Guiseppe Mengoni, who was killed when he fell from the roof a few days before the inaugural ceremony in 1878. Take a look, too, at the mosaic beneath the glass cupola. It is divided into four and composed of the symbols of the cities that made up the reunited Italy (Rome, Florence, Milan and Turin), though you'll have to wait for a brief lull in the hordes of Milanese strolling through the gallery in order to get a decent view. Incidentally, it's considered good luck to stand on the bull's testicles, hence the indentation in the floor.

A crystal palace on wheels?

In both Switzerland and Canada you can take a trip on a train which has been converted to give you the best view of the breathtaking mountain panoramas. The Swiss Travel System offers eight different routes covering the country from end to end, all of which have glass viewing carriages through which you can enjoy the fantastic alpine views. In Canada, Via Rail has several transparent "dome cars" which offer 360-degree panoramic views through the glass-domed roof of the carriage. These are available on touring trains which cover large areas of the country and give the opportunity to enjoy uninterrupted views of the Canadian scenery.

Room Service
The Glasshouse, Edinburgh
This is one of Edinburgh's newest hotels. There is a stunning roof garden, and suites are all named after whiskies and the entrance to this mainly glass-fronted building is through the façade of an old church.