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Grand visions

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A Thing in Disguise: The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton By Kate Colquhoun. Fourth Estate, 2003. £18.99

When the Great Exhibition closed on the 11 October 1851, six million people had wandered in awe through the glass-and-iron building in Hyde Park. For months the roads around the exhibition had been choked, trains with thousands of visitors came streaming into London, and the Times reported 'nothing like it had ever been witnessed before'. Britain's economy was booming and everything seemed possible.

Designed in a few days, built in six months, constructed of only prefabricated parts - without any mortar and bricks - its scale was unprecedented, making it the greatest glass building of the world.

Its inspiration was a giant water lily and its designer was the gardener to the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth: Joseph Paxton. He had been the first to bring Victoria regia to bloom in Britain, and the enormous strength of its leaves sparked his idea for the roof structure of the Crystal Palace. Putting his seven-year-old daughter on the lily in a water tank, Paxton tested the loadbearing capacity of a leaf, which was nearly 5 feet across. Its net of protruding veins - a system of radiating beams with cross bars - held little Annie, and was soon translated into over 2,000 girders and 33,000 iron columns in Hyde Park.

This long-overdue biography, bringing alive the career of a young gardener who would create one of the most iconic buildings of the 19th-century, is the story of a man who rose from his humble background to become an architect, railway magnate, MP and publisher. A workaholic by nature, Paxton entranced the duke so much with his transformation of Chatsworth's gardens that he became his closest friend, overstepping the rigid class boundaries of the time.

Paxton constructed more than 30 hothouses in Chatsworth and filled them with the treasures of the expanding British Empire.

Paxton was a visionary, but an eccentric one. Inspired by his success in using the waste of his own household as liquid manure in orchid cultivation, he proposed this as a solution for the ever-increasing sewage problem in the metropolis. Other innovations were taken more seriously, such as the UK's first public park (later the model for New York's Central Park). But his most colourful designs stemmed from his experiments with greenhouses, although some were never built - the Crystal Sanatorium, for example, envisaged as a glass building with a ventilation system that was 'similar to modern air-conditioning'.

In 1865, Paxton suggested a 16 mile-long glass 'girdle' around central London, known as the Great Victorian Way. The gigantic arcade would have encompassed a street in the centre lined by shops, cafes and hotels, as well as several storeys of railway tracks at the sides. During the day it would have only served passenger carriage and omnibuses, while commercial deliveries would be allowed after 9pm. His solution for the traffic problems of 19th-century London still sounds radical and modern. But as Colquhoun points out, Paxton was also as quirky and bizarre as one expects a Victorian inventor to be. He thought the elderly would not need to travel abroad in the winter because the ingenious ventilation systems in his glass-and-iron visions could create any continental climate.

This book captures the spirit of a man whose legacy can be seen in the works of Le Corbusier and Buckminster Fuller, as well as in Grimshaw's Eden Project - and it makes Paxton's first greenhouse in Chatsworth's kitchen garden the stem-cell of Norman Foster's 'Gherkin'.

Andrea Wulf is the co-author of a forthcoming book on garden history and landscape design (Little Brown, 2004)

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