A womb without a view. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a proud international statement. In contrast, argues Paul Barker, the Millennium Dome is a reflection of our parochial individual outlook

The Great Exhibition of 1851

Jeffrey A Auerbach <em>Yale University Press, 256pp, £25</em>

ISB

Some people may, even at this late hour, be fretting about what the inside of the Millennium Dome may finally be like and whether it will pull enough visitors in. Those who feel friendly towards the project, that is; its enemies will be preparing to rub their hands in glee. But one conclusion I draw from these two scholarly studies of the world's first and most famous international exhibition, held with huge success in Hyde Park in 1851, is that the importance of exhibitions and festivals lies in what they leave behind them.

Their inheritance may operate through direct or indirect influence. Take the direct line of descent first. Joseph Paxton's extraordinarily bold design of the Crystal Palace was, at the time, the largest enclosure of space in the world. The palace endorsed the use of glass and iron for structures other than railway sheds. Without Paxton there would have been no Norman Foster or Richard Rogers. Paxton would have felt at home in Foster's Stansted airport terminal or in Rogers's Lloyd's building.

But influence can go by opposites, as the career of William Morris demonstrated. He created his design company in deliberate contrast to the sort of displays the Crystal Palace contained. At the age of 17, he refused to go into the Great Exhibition with his parents. He sat gloomily outside. None of that hugger-mugger profusion was, for him, the future. Not the rows of machinery, with attendant workmen to show you how they operated. Not the heaps of ornate textiles and lumpy furniture. Not the amazing inventions, including the champagne made from rhubarb; the expanding mannequin, whose 7,000 interlocking steel pieces allowed it to expand or shrink to any size, from dwarf to giant; the "ostreicide", a new gadget for opening oysters; or the "silent alarum bedstead", which, instead of deafening the sleeper with a ringing bell, tipped him abruptly out into a bath of cold water. Morris reacted into a kind of socialist medievalism: all flowers and knights and songs of comradeship.

Jeffrey Auerbach and John Davis would not, I think, be publishing their books at this moment if the Millennium Dome were not about to open. The Dome began with a search for a site. The quest for an idea, never fully resolved, came later. But, as these books remind us, the Great Exhibition was, from the beginning, a very big bang indeed. The Crystal Palace was awash with public messages. It was "the inaugural festival of free trade" and was, very specifically, a cathedral of Protestant enterprise. Alfred Tennyson wrote an ode. Thomas Cook began to make his fortune by bringing 165,000 visitors (3 per cent of the total) through a deal with the Midland Railway. The omnipresent police were amazed at how little trouble there was from the novel intermingling of classes once the cheap-ticket offers kicked in. Punch portrayed mothers drinking beer and suckling their babies under a statue of Shakespeare, with the motto: "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin."

In a formal display of official tolerance, Pugin was permitted to construct a medieval court, with wild Gothic longings for pre-Reformation Catholicism and trappings, all made in Birmingham. But many commentators feared and detested it. In 1850, the Pope had re-established a Roman Catholic hierarchy in England. In 1851, Britain's only religious census so far showed that nearly 4.5 per cent of the population were Irish-born Catholics, at a time when religious differences were taken even more seriously than ethnic differences are today.

Looking back, we often think of the Crystal Palace as one of the first examples of modern mass production. It was assembled with huge speed, from identical modules, like some of the horrors of industrialised council flats in the 1960s. But every single pane of glass, Auerbach notes, was blown by hand - 300,000 panes in all. If it wasn't yet the beginning of Ford-style mass production, the 1851 show marked the start of an exhibition craze, of which the Dome may be the last gasp.

These successors have had a mixture of direct and indirect influence. The Festival of Britain was held in 1951, on the anniversary of the Great Exhibition, spawning its own recognisable "Festival" style. Hugh Casson, director of architecture, wanted to endorse modern design as firmly as Paxton had endorsed glass and steel. So the public housing of the 1950s had light, sub-Scandinavian mannerisms. Offices had balcony railings that looked as though they were made of twined rope. Pottery was as bright and cheerful as wallpaper. But, confronted with the Festival of Britain's whimsical airiness, young architects like Peter and Alison Smithson, James Stirling and James Gowan turned the other way, towards heaviness and fierceness. They created brutalism. To see both today, you need only walk along the South Bank, past the Royal Festival Hall and the Hayward Gallery.

If we're lucky, exhibitions leave an archaeological stratum of grand physical remains. The Eiffel Tower is the most celebrated, erected as a temporary structure for the Paris exhibition of 1889 - "II n'y a que le provisoire qui dure" ("only that which is temporary lasts").The London Eye millennium wheel, a couple of hundred yards from the Festival Hall, demonstrates the enduring truth of this proverb. The wheel is already more popular than the Dome, before either has opened for business (I doubt if it will be pulled down until it becomes seriously dangerous). The Ferris wheel is a classic exhibition entertainment structure, invented for the Chicago exhibition of 1893. The original no longer exists, but a myriad descendants do.

The private-enterprise 1851 exhibition made a profit, much of which went into creating South Kensington's "Albertopolis" of museums and galleries. It gave its name, too, to an entire district of south London (and a football team), after the Crystal Palace was dismantled and rebuilt even bigger in Sydenham. The Dome is due to endure for a while yet, although there are no plans to move it. Will it fix itself in national life as the reconstructed Crystal Palace did, with its grandiose performances of Handel, its brass bands, its balloon trips, even its early speedway track? The palace's concrete dinosaurs, created for educational purposes, and foreshadowing the recent BBC-TV animation series, still lollop though the bushes of the park.

Nothing ever completely vanishes. Outside the House of Lords, the huge statue of Richard Lionheart on horseback began as a plaster adornment at the Crystal Palace; it was cast in bronze by popular demand. Wembley Stadium, built for the British Empire Exhibition of 1924, may be about to be demolished, but I shall be surprised if bits and pieces of it - perhaps the landmark towers - do not turn up somewhere else. Cities aren't just about good taste. They are also about vigorous vulgarity.

Both authors are in pursuit of the meaning of the 1851 exhibition, but their prose lies dead on the page - what is most enlightening in these books are the illustrations. Auerbach is the more authoritative. His advantage is a near-overwhelming thoroughness, and his illustrations are in vivid Victorian colour. Davis spends more time on the extraordinary exhibits themselves, and makes more use of contemporary photographs. These show that, by today's standards, the Crystal Palace was not that startlingly big, nor its contents so huge. Illustrators and cartoonists best convey the stunning impact at the time.

In 1851, Britain was the unrivalled top dog industrially. The US had trouble filling the space it demanded. But auguries were there for those who wanted them. One of the American hits of the exhibition was Hiram Powers's neoclassical white marble statue, The Greek Slave. But this was the past. Davis prints a bizarre photograph of Powers's statue against the background of a billowing rubber boat made by Messrs Goodyear. This was what America would be about.

The 1851 exhibition, the 1951 Festival of Britain and now the Dome draw a strange line through modern British history. Paxton's palace was international, expansive, outward-looking. A century later, Herbert Morrison's festival was national, costive, inward-looking; the official symbol showed Britannia hovering over the British Isles, not over the world. A half-century on, the Millennium Dome collapses things down even further. It focuses on the individual and the family.

After "them" (1851), and then "us" (1951), it is now "me". The Dome is advertised purely as an "experience". Architecturally, it is a womb without an outward view. Bring on the psychoanalysts.

Paul Barker is a Senior Fellow of the Institute of Community Studies