There is a split in the history of British architecture between a supposedly rational, progressive modernism and a romantic, back-ward looking traditionalism. The recent spat between Paul Finch and the TAG (Traditional Architecture Group) is only the most recent scuffle in this long running and mostly pretty tedious argument. It's a split that finds a literal embodiment in the grand railway stations of the Victorian era where vast, glazed sheds were hidden behind historicist fronts.
This neat, binary opposition requires each side to play their part and avoid straying from the party line. One effect of this is that those same glass sheds escape scrutiny for their stranger, less rational qualities. Buildings like Paxton's Crystal Palace and Decimus Burton's Palm House at Kew are clearly more than simply examples of proto-modernism, both in terms of their remarkable programmes and the spectacular forms they develop to house them.
Burton's Palm House in particular is a beautiful object, like a delicate glass ship that has come to ground on the ornamental terraces of the Royal Botanical Gardens. The glass has a greenish tinge to it which, coupled with its gorgeously curved section, gives the building a liquid appearance, like a bubble of water, or an inverted pond on an immaculate lawn.
It aligns itself with the river too, sitting at the end of a long vista marked out by Cedars and terminating on the banks of Thames. Burton designed this element too, clearing trees and moulding the landscape as if the building had sailed serenely up the gardens and executed a neat turn at the end before setting down. The view terminates in the entrance to the Palm House and the highest section of the building containing the tallest and most extraordinary palms.
Perhaps it was towed by a flotilla of swans. Now they sit in petrified form acting as brackets holding the glass down to its stone moorings. Viewed close-up they appear to be sticking their tongues out, like the flowers in Disney's version of Alice in Wonderland.
There is something Dr Who-esque about the interior, where comically obscene looking bulbs, fronds and palm trunks loom over you like stage-set monsters. Generations of horror film directors must have come here for inspiration, from the Day of the Triffids to The Quatermass Experiment.
Like the Tardis it is also much bigger on the inside. The Palm House is a space-machine, it collapses geography so that several continents fit into a hundred square meters or so of glass sitting in south west London. Like a Dutch still life brought in three dimensions, the Palm House combines plants from disparate continents and places them in implausible proximity.
The relics of classicism in the form of distended columns and vestigial bits of decoration are reduced to skeletal supports for a new kind of architecture. The Victorian desire for efficiency created incredibly spindly elements that seem barely capable of holding the weight of the building above them.
As you travel up the spiral staircase to the walkway in the roof section it becomes so hot that condensation forms instantly on the camera lens, intensifying the fusion of the architecture and the plants until they blur into one other. At this point the building could easily be a ruin engulfed by vegetation rather than a high-tech laboratory for studying plant life.
The Palm House can be seen in the context of a desire to dissolve architecture altogether. The all glass house is a recurring fantasy in architecture, literally evident in designs by Mies and Philip Johnson but also manifest in the avant-garde experiments of the late '60's. Banham and Francois Dallegret's Un-House, Superstudio's Continuous Monument and David Greene's Experimental Bottery are all examples of 'buildings' where the architecture is almost entirely absent. These projects could be termed bucolic high-tech, a kind of techno utopia where we roam - like Archigram's "electric aborigine" - irrespective of climate and unrestrained by any physical or cultural need for separation.
In such a scenario the world also becomes a kind of playground, a place where there are no longer barriers. The phantasmagorical exhibition buildings of the Victorian period as harbingers of the contemporary dissolution of space via the Internet and digital communication as much as they are prototypes for the industrial age architecture of the 20th century. They are prophets of an age where barriers of space, place and time are continuously dissolving.