The idea of a peaceful international gathering of trade, industry and the fine arts was materialised in 1851 with the first Great Exhibition in London. John Paxton's Crystal Palace became a symbolic, innovative monument because of its transparency, its grandiose dimensions, and its modern construction: the use of standard structural and decorative elements enabled it to be built in six months.
At the first Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1855, the city was keen to rival London's dazzling achievement and gave a monumental aspect to a building designed to last – the Palace of Industry, located at the lower end of the Champs Élysées. It was the work of the architect Viel and the engineer Barreau, a rather unhappy combination of triple metal nave with a span of forty-eight metres and a stone façade with triumphal gates. A side entrance prevented visitors from enjoying the height and clarity of the fine central vault and its glass roof.
The critics were harsh: "A visitor who goes into the building expecting an open palace, a crystal palace, will be most surprised when faced with this enormous mass to see that the crystal is nothing other than calcium carbonate commonly known as stone." The building was an important milestone in the history of taste, because it housed the Salon until it was demolished to make room for the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais built for the 1900 Exhibition.
Max Berthelin, the architect of the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer de l'Ouest, was keenly interested in iron building techniques as is shown by this study of the inner structure, but he did not take part in this particular construction. The two drawings in the Musée d'Orsay (Perspective View, Cross-Section), dated 1854, are neither projects nor real views because the building was far from finished at the time.