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Technology meets history: Computer modelling Brighton’s Royal Pavilion Estate

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Last year, 3D modeller Colin Jones volunteered to work with the Royal Pavilion to produce some 3D models of the Royal Pavilion Estate. In this blog post, Colin discusses his work to date, and the challenges posed in trying to recreate the past through polygons.

20160424RoyalPavilion11The project to produce accurate computer models of the Royal Pavilion estate,  at several stages in its history, started in November 2015 with a single model of the 2015 Royal Pavilion itself. Since that time, the initial model has been extended and improved while other estate buildings have been modelled and landscapes created to provide context.

BrightonPavilionFromAbove03BrightonPavilionFromAbove04Modelling buildings that no longer exist presents many challenges. However, even when modelling buildings that do currently exist, inaccessible areas such as roofs can be difficult because accurate plans are not always available and photos cannot always be taken from ground level. In the case of the Royal Pavilion, the modelling team was lucky to find a YouTube video, produced by a local drone pilot, who had recently flown over the roof of the Pavilion revealing every detail. The Pavilion modelling project couldn’t have asked for a better insight into the shape of the roof and the less accessible parts of the present day Royal Pavilion building.


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The older the building, the harder it is to find images that give you an accurate view of the detail of that building. However, if you want to model a building as it appeared before photography was available, you must rely on the work of artists in the form of paintings and engravings. It is even more challenging if there are several views by different artists which disagree with each other, which was the case with the Royal Pavilion. Additionally, there were several different architect’s plans with commissioned artist’s visualisations of how the estate could look if a particular architect was chosen. These plans were quite often different to actual realised detail. It was possible, however, to match some paintings exactly with an image from a model which is very satisfying.

The Royal Pavilion curators enlisted the cooperation of a group of academics who were willing to comment on every stage of this project. In practice, these selfless people were invaluable and a major factor in the quality of the end result. It is important that the modelling team, despite their efforts to produce accurate detail in the first instance, is receptive to criticism from these experienced people. Many aspects of the models were tested by this group, who in addition to their knowedge of contemporary images of the Pavilion, can also draw on knowledge of legal documents and written witness accounts. In this project, all comments were accepted without question, resulting in many changes being made to produce the final versions. The modelling team is grateful to them for their time and effort which was unfailingly constructive and freely given.

20160424Versailles0120160424RoyalPavilionTimeMachineResearch was carried out by the modelling team to find out how computer modelling has been used effectively on other historic buildings in other countries. Impressive work was highlighted to the Royal Pavilion curators including Buckingham Palace, the US White House and the French Palace of Versailles. The Palace of Versailles web site ( is particularly impressive for it’s use of computer models to show the estate at different times in it’s history. The modelling team were inspired by this and intends eventually to produce comparable functionality for the Royal Pavilion.

20160424LightwaveModellerUIThe modelling team uses Lightwave 3D software to produce the models. Lightwave 3D is robust, tested software which is used by professional teams in many countries to create live action film special effects and computer animated films. The functionality is split between two tools, Modeller and Layout. Modeller is used to create and assemble polygons which is the technique used to construct the models. Layout is then used to apply textures to polygons and to produce high quality rendered images of scenes containing the models. Modeller and Layout communicate with each other so it’s possible to make changes to a model and re-render a scene quickly and efficiently. Modeller has been designed to work for architectural visualisations and so appropriate modelling tools are available to aid accuracy and to construct complex shapes such as domes. For repetitive tasks, there is an Application Programmers Interface (API) which allows Python program code to interact with model polygons.

Trees03The most complex model of all the buildings on the Royal Pavilion Estate, is the 2015 Royal Pavilion building which contains over 260,000 polygons and has several hundred man hours invested in it. This complexity is however dwarfed by requirements of modelling landscapes which are important to give context to the buildings. A realistic model of a single tree has 32,000 polygons and, unlike rigid architecture, is shown differently in every artist’s representation of a scene. If you multiply this number by the number of trees on the Royal Pavilion Estate it is easy to understand why this issue is so challenging to the designers of modelling software. To address this issue, the designers of Lightwave 3D provide a cloning function which allows the modeller to place a marker of a tree in a scene that does not require any resources until the system is producing a rendered image.

2015 Royal Pavilion in 3D

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Colin Jones

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