glass area


steel, thereof


frame members and



a sea of glass: the cutty sark conservation project

In April 2012, in the presence of the Queen, the over 100-year-old Cutty Sark was officially reopened as a museum ship and is now one of the greatest tourist attractions London has to offer. The fastest wool and tea clipper in its heyday, since 1957 the ship has served as a museum ship in a specially designed dry dock in Greenwich, London. As the Cutty Sark owed its speed to its special-purpose construction, this fact needed to be particularly emphasized when carrying out the latest conservation measures.

For this purpose, the ship was raised 3m above street level within the dry dock, creating an easily accessible area covered by a curved glass canopy, enabling visitors to walk around under the ship’s hull. The Cutty Sark stands out above the glass construction, just as it once rose above the waves as it sailed the high seas. Grimshaw Architects of London were responsible for the draft as well as for the design of the exhibition area that has been created in the lower levels.

  • At a 9° outward angle, the filigree glass canopy rises above the ground and then curves back towards the ship at a steep angle. Its height varies from 1.9m in the centre at the ship’s beam to around 2.9m at the bow and the stern, resulting in a multiple curved shape. The supporting structure consists of hollow steel sections bolted together via six-way nodes. The triangular insulated glass panes are attached to the substructure by non-visible point fixtures located in the space between the panes. A variation on this basic structure has been used on the angled sides of the canopy, which rise up from floor level and consist of 2m wide trapezoidal elements joined by five-way nodes accordingly.

    Right from an early stage, seele was called in as consultant when planning the roughly 90m long and 20m wide curved glass canopy. seele developed a freeform lattice shell structure based on triangles with sides approximately 2m long.

    Reference overview, header image, 1st, 3rd, 4th & 6th slide image: © Jim Stephenson; 2nd & 5th slide image: © National Maritime Museum London

An elaborate seele solution encompasses the exhibit dynamically and allows for movement, but is still watertight

The original aim of the design by Grimshaw Architects was to make the clipper appear as if it were floating on a sea of glass. seele implemented the design as a self-supporting construction some 1,500sqm in size, as water, of course, does not have any beams. Visually light and rising like a wave, the roof of the visitors’ center connects to the ship’s hull at the height of the waterline. It was quite a challenge to seal this contact point because the upper part of the ship continues to move, as it is still out in the open air and therefore exposed to wind and weather. In other words, the roof needed to be laterally flexible, but still watertight. Accordingly, seele connected suitable supports to the concrete base using elastomer bearings. The second support consists of a circumferential steel ring, in turn supported by 24 angled supports that are anchored in the walls of the visitors’ center, which also help to give the Cutty Sark the appearance of floating.


A 3D model of the supported ship’s hull in the dry dock shows the basis of the seele construction.
seele planned a glass canopy designed as a curved free-form surface that encompasses both the ship’s hull and the dry dock.
seele took the potential structural influences into account when creating the gridshell structure and was therefore able to use thin steel sections throughout.
seele connected the steel grid of the canopy with geometrically unique nodes, equipped with up to six arms, onto which the steel sections are screwed.
The variously orientated steel sections all converge similarly towards the star-shaped, precisely manufactured nodes.
The finished structure consisting of nodes and steel sections was then cladded with insulated glass panes and sealed.


Client The Cutty Sark Trust
Main contractor Gardiner & Theobald LLP and FB Ellmer Ltd.
Architect Grimshaw Architects LLP
Engineer Buro Happold Ltd.
Date of completion 2012
Scope of seele supply
  • Canopy: 1,500sqm of glass, 72t of steel 
  • Two entrance doors and two exit doors
  • Door portals with stainless steel cladding