Take a peek inside MIT’s famous dome

Our home page banner features the famous dome atop Building 10 on the MIT campus—it’s an iconic image that is recognized around the world.  But for most—including many of the OCW staff—what was under that dome was a bit of a mystery.

MIT great domeSince 2007, the space beneath the dome, the Barker Library reading room, has been under renovation, and it has just reopened.  For the first time in decades the remarkable round window at the top the space—the oculus—is now visible.  Here’s how MIT News describes the oculus:

At 27 feet in diameter, the oculus is almost exactly the same size as that of the Pantheon in Rome, which was built early in the second century. That’s no accident, Tondorf-Dick says: “Architecturally, in terms of its classicism, [Building 10] was a reinterpretation of a lot of earlier classical forms,” he says.

While the Pantheon’s oculus is simply a hole in the ceiling, the Great Dome’s is glassed in. From the reading-room floor, the oculus appears to be spanned by a single large, round window. But that’s an illusion: In typical MIT fashion, the optics of the oculus are the result of ingenious engineering.

The glazing in the Great Dome actually consists of 1,042 blocks of glass, each 6 1/4 inches to a side and 1 1/4 inches thick. The blocks are grouped into six-by-six squares; within each square, the blocks are spaced 2 1/2 inches from each other. The borders between the six-by-six squares are thicker still, so that in fact, much of the 27-foot-wide opening in the dome is occluded by structural supports, while the pattern formed by the blocks is at best a boxy approximation of a circle, like something out of an early video game.

The glass blocks, however, are embossed with patterns that concentrate the intensity of the light passing through them by about 15 percent, in the manner of a Fresnel lens. A couple of feet below the blocks, spanning the breadth of the oculus, is a second layer of glazing, a “lay light” with structural supports arranged as radii and concentric circles. The panes of the lay light are a prismatic glass that diffuses the light from above them so that, seen from below, all but the largest structural elements of the dome’s glazing seem to disappear.

Originally, the glass blocks were embedded in a concrete matrix; during the renovation, that was replaced with a stainless-steel frame so that in the future, damaged blocks can be swapped out individually. According to Tondorf-Dick, reproducing the light-focusing glass blocks required coordinating the work of three different vendors: one that created new molds from a few surviving specimens; one that developed the chemistry for the glass, so that it could be manufactured in inch-thick slabs and would survive exposure to the elements; and one to handle the bulk fabrication. Read more.


The restored oculus. (Photo: Steve Carson)

And with the new light, the details of the restoration are now visible:

The reopening of the oculus means that the glorious architectural details of the rotunda can once more be seen distinctly; among these are the recessed coffers of the ceiling, very much like those of the Pantheon; the Corinthian columns ringing the room; and the acanthus leaves around the base of the dome.

When Building 10 opened in 1916, the architectural detail of the rotunda was further emphasized by a subtle color scheme that involved seven different shades of off-white and a green that simulates oxidized bronze. “But when we started, everything had been painted out MIT white,” Tondorf-Dick says. After much research — including paint-sample analysis and computer simulation — the color scheme has been restored, as has the plasterwork of the walls and dome. High-efficiency LED lights have also been added around the oculus and between the columns, and upturned floodlights that illuminate the dome are concealed behind the acanthus leaves. Read more.

Wide shot of reading room

The restored colors. (Photo: Steve Carson)

So next time you visit the MIT campus, take a few minutes to visit this restored wonder.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s