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Friday, July 23, 2010

Catalan Vaults: An Old Technology Gone Green

Florence Cathedral dome.Image via Wikipedia
Vaulted ceilings have been with us for millennia. The Sumerians and Egyptians were building vaulted ceilings more than five thousand years ago. Vaulting continued to develop over the course of architectural history and now dozens of vault forms exist.  Some time ago, I wrote a couple of different posts (here and here) about one of the most famous of the domes built in the early Renaissance, Brunelleschi's Duomo in Florence.  This dome has fascinated architects for centuries, not only for its size and beauty, but because it was built without "centering", the temporary scaffolding usually used to hold the weight of an arch or dome while the structure is under construction.

I love architecture and architectural technology.  Who hasn't been left standing in awe seeing a 12th Century Gothic cathedral or looking at a Roman aqueduct?   So I was pleased to see that the August issue of Smithsonian Magazine has an article on the Catalan Vault. The article highlights MIT professor, John Ochsendorf's design of the  Mapungunbwe National Park Interpretive Center in South Africa (pictured below).



Oschendorf designed the building to be made of locally-produced materials that don't depend on concrete. Hence, the project significantly reduced the energy consumption that would have otherwise been used to make concrete for the building. The building was honored as the World Building of the Year for 2009 at the World Architectural Festival held in Barcelona. 

How strong is a Catalan Vault?  Check out this miniature demo version that Ochendorf built at MIT.


The bricks are only an inch thick and held together by Plaster of Paris mortar.  It took a weekend to build this model.  And like Brunelleshi's Duomo, these vaults need no centering to build them.  Pretty cool.

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