Modeling the Crystal Palace

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Chris Jessee

    University of Virginia

  2. 2. Michael Levenson

    University of Virginia

  3. 3. Will Rourk

    University of Virginia

  4. 4. Dave Cosca

    University of Virginia

Work text
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The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia is providing historians, architects and students new insights into the history, construction and appearance of the Crystal Palace. These insights are derived from the construction of 3-dimensional computer models and simulations. This project is a small part of the larger "Monuments and Dust". In "Monuments and Dust" an international group of scholars will assemble a complex visual, textual, and statistical representation of Victorian London - the largest city of the nineteenth-century world and its first urban metropolis. A full description of "Monuments and Dust" can be found online. See the "WEB-LINKS" section.


Popularly known as the Crystal Palace, the 1851 London Exhibition Building was designed by Joseph Paxton for the Royal Exhibition. On June 20th 1850 Paxton delivered his original design to the Industrial Exhibition's executive committee. Only two weeks had passed since the building commission had introduced a clause to allow Paxton to submit a design. Controversy swirled around the exhibition as Col. Charles de L.Waldo Sibthorp's concern over the destruction of elm trees prompted the Times to question the sanity of constructing any permanent structure on the Hyde Park site. The commissioners responded by requesting that Paxton alter his design to include a barrel-vaulted transept that would cover and save the elms. The Industrial Exhibition's opening day was less than a year away on May 1st 1851. The Crystal Palace design received popular approval in the press. All other proposed designs for the exhibition building were monolithic masonry and could not be completed in time for the scheduled opening. With no other reasonable plan at hand the building commission accepted Paxton's design with the provision the building be removed from Hyde Park by June 1st 1852. As the foundations were being laid, Paxton's lack of architecture or engineering credentials drew criticism regarding the stability and safety of his design. The design is in essence an elaborately scaled copy of the Duke of Devonshire's Chatsworth Conservatory. Paxton designed the conservatory while employed as the Duke's gardener. In response to the criticism all iron girders were tested on site prior to installation. Wooden cross-bracing was added to visually reassure visitors the wrought iron trusses were sturdy and could withstand the load of the thousands of anticipated visitors. Paxton's reliance on his previous glass-enclosed conservatory design influenced the details of all the Crystal Palace's building systems. The primary role of the building was as exhibit space. The design is composed of a central transept and nave with the nave lined with a series of 24x24 foot structural bays. Second level galleries ring the bays below. The structural bays served to organize the 13,973 exhibitors. Red banners with white letters indicating specific exhibits hung from the 24-foot girders facing the nave. The nave, galleries and transept served as circulation corridors for the exhibition's more than 6 million visitors. The large expanse of overhead glass that serves as the enclosure and lighting systems and gives the building its nickname allowed excessive amounts of light and heat into the exhibit spaces. While this arrangement served Paxton well in the Chatsworth greenhouse, the crowded exhibit spaces quickly overheated. The decision to use extensive amounts of glass without regard to the comfort of the occupants is the primary failure of the design. To remedy this flaw the troughs of the roof system were retrofitted with canvas covers draped between the roof ridges. These tarps shaded the glass and visitors, reduced solar gain and provided a more diffuse and tolerable light in the galleries. The tarps had a seam down the middle to allow rapid water drainage into the Paxton gutters. The secondary role of the building was as exhibit. Initially there was much skepticism, doubt and criticism surrounding the design of the Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition. But as the building rapidly grew above the trees of Hyde Park the press and public rallied around the glistening structure. The public began to realize and take great pride that the building was revolutionary in every way. The building handily satisfied its most demanding design criteria. It was large enough to accommodate tens of thousands of exhibitors and visitors. It fostered the orderly display of exhibits. It could be manufactured and assembled in a timely manner. It clearly demonstrated the nation's industrial and manufacturing competence. The Crystal Palace was a departure from the past and a vision of the future. The Crystal Palace was designed, manufactured and assembled in less than one year. This feat was made possible by manufacturing technology that should still be considered state of the art. The building is an integrated system or kit of parts, where each part serves multiple functions. The columns support the girders and act as downspouts for the gutters. The Paxton gutters shed rain-water and support the roof gables. The glass roof panels are both building enclosure and lighting system. Each part is machine manufactured by skilled labor under controlled conditions that insure accuracy and high quality. Once a machine or technique is devised to make a specific part, the part can be made very quickly and in large quantity. Parts were delivered to the site and erected as quickly as they were manufactured. The small size and light weight of each part made erection easy. Each structural bay is self-supporting so the 2,000 unskilled workers could assemble parts without waiting for whole systems to be in place. In contrast, other buildings of the time were made of stone and required years to construct. The stone was cut from quarries and transported at great expense to the building site, where skilled masons custom fit one block to another. It is important to study this building in context, as it is evidence of a fundamental cultural shift. As compared to the artifacts in the exhibition the Crystal Palace building has a clean sparse appearance with a minimum of ornament. With the exception of girder connection covers there are few components that could be considered ornamental. The real difference lies in the method of manufacture and the value placed on the resulting product by society. Once Londoners saw the efficiency and grace of its construction the Crystal Palace became a focus of pride. The design marks a cultural shift in values from garish hand made ornament of the past to the clean, streamlined machine-made products of the future. The Crystal Palace is more closely related to buildings of the next century, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's 1929 Barcelona Pavilion and Phillip Johnson's 1949 Glass House, than with its monolithic, masonry contemporaries.


Three different types of 3-dimensional computer models are being created for the project. Working from original drawings, a high detail model of each unique building component is constructed in FormZ software. The components are assembled to illustrate the relationship of parts within larger sections of the building. Rendered images of these assemblies and the computer model itself is delivered through the Internet. Rendered orthographic views of the component assemblies are used as texture or image maps on a low detail VRML (virtual reality modeling language) model of the entire building. The VRML model can be viewed through a web browser. Given the state-of-the-art of photography in 1851 and the limits it imposes on our ability to understand and appreciate the lighting in the Crystal Palace our third model is a realistic lighting simulation. Radiance software, running on Supercomputers, enables us to render images and animations of the building's lighting as it existed in 1851. Test images have been rendered on a SGI Power Onyx at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) and on SUN workstations at IATH. Additional images and animations will be rendered on a 64-Processor SUN HPC 10000 Supercomputer at SDSC.


Architects, historians and students can gain a better understanding of the building and its significance by studying the images and models we have created. By freely providing the computer models, variations of the building's structure, lighting and design can be tested and used as a tool for teaching. Exploring the use of realistic lighting simulations (both quantitative and qualitative) on Supercomputers provides not only a new set of tools and methods for the humanities researcher but paves the road for interaction and collaboration with computer scientists.


"Modeling the Crystal Palace" <>
"Monuments and Dust" <>
The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities <>

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at University of Glasgow

Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom

July 21, 2000 - July 25, 2000

104 works by 187 authors indexed

Affiliations need to be double-checked.

Conference website:

Series: ALLC/EADH (27), ACH/ICCH (20), ACH/ALLC (12)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None