Tag Archives: Benjamin Ibarra-Sevilla

Review of Modelling Medieval Vaults

We are delighted that our symposium ‘Modelling Medieval Vaults’ was reviewed in the first issue of The Construction Historian (the magazine of the Construction History Society). With the kind permission of the author and editor (David Yeomans), it is reproduced here.

‘The life of a Gothic vault begins with a design, which exists as plan. This has then to be projected into three dimensions, not just to determine the overall geometry but also to enable individual stones of the ribs to be cut to shape so that they fit together. Once assembled the structure of the vault has to be stable and so must transmit the thrusts safely to the supporting walls and buttresses. They will then move in resisting the thrusts and so cracks will develop in the vault ribs and in the vault surfaces that they support, cracks that might seem to be signs of failure but which will have been there for hundreds of years. Sometimes, of course, the building might be destroyed and the vaults will then only survive as rubble, but rubble that might contain clues to the original form of the vault. Each of these stages provides material for different kinds of scholarship and all were represented in this one-day symposium.

There were speakers to cover every stage of the process. Those dealing with design aspects showed clearly the difference between approaches to architectural history and construction history. The former sometimes seemed to involve a special language. I simply cannot imagine what ‘visual space perception in micro and macro cosmological dimensions” could possibly mean, but perhaps it lost something in translation. It was a phrase used by Thomas Bauer in reference to vaulting in Prague with curved non structural ribs, typical of late vaulting in other Northern European countries. I am not sure about their designers ‘contributing to a new space discourse’. The idea that masons devised the elaborate, non-structural pattern of ribs that we were shown to compete with flat decorative ceilings that were coming into fashion seems simple and convincing.

My doubts are how well we can see into the minds of medieval designers. What we do know is that the designers of the more elaborate rib patterns were playing with geometry and that given an accurate survey of the rib pattern it is possible to reconstruct the geometrical process that was used. While Bauer demonstrated the very complex geometry of the vaults in Prague our hosts demonstrated it for the much simpler geometry used in the aisles of the choir at Wells. There vaulting with slight differences in the plans also had differences in section, some being flatter than others. Thus we saw how accurate survey methods now possible might show subtleties that had previously been unrecognized.

Once the geometry had been decided it needed to be marked out on the tracing floor. There is some evidence in the form of putlog holes in the walls that there was a scaffold immediately below the vault, which might have been used as a tracing floor. The masons could then have used plumb lines to the drawing immediately below the vault itself to mark up the stones, much as carpenters use plumb lines to scribe timbers to fit.

Of course the vault has to stand once built although there is often movement over time. Santiago Huerta delighted everyone with a model arch, which demonstrated the formation of cracks within both the ribs and the surfaces of vaults that result from the inevitable movement of supporting walls and buttresses. But while he described the attempts from the eighteenth century onward to understand the behaviour of medieval vaults there was no discussion of how they might have been structurally designed at the time. One speaker’s assertion that the columns of Mallorca cathedral could be as slender as they as because of loading built above the vault ribs simply raises more questions than it answered.

Perhaps the most surprising thing for the outsider was the way in which archaeologists may be able to reconstruct the appearance of collapsed vaults based on material in the rubble. In vaulting with intricate patterns of ribs, stones forming the connections indicate the directions of the connecting ribs and may make it possible to determine the overall pattern.

Much of all this new work on vaulting depends upon modern surveying methods: the use of photogrammetry and laser scanning. One paper compared the use of these two techniques while others described the process of making use of the data from laser scans. Different software packages appear to offer different advantages, or are it disadvantages. RHINO is not it seems a huge horned herbivore but just one of the packages available. There was much discussion of these systems and it was clear that the specialists in these aids needed to be brought in to help the communities of archaeologists or historians.

The last talk addressed what we normally think of as a model because Benjamin Ibarra-Sevilla had used digital printing to construct physical models of the vaults of the churches in Mexico that he had studied. Because the ribs of these are made of separate components they need to be held in pace while being assembled. The students helping with this process were able to gain an appreciation of the delicate balance of forces involved. It seems that what can be learnt about medieval vaults and what can be learnt from tem is far from exhausted. It also seems that from archaeologists to computer specialists there is something in medieval vaulting for everyone.

For anyone wishing to know more about the work being done by The Liverpool School of Architecture on vaulting see www.tracingthepast.org.uk. There is also to be a two-day event at Cambridge to look at the work of Robert Willis at www.robertwillis2016.org.’

We shall be presenting more about our work in a paper at the next conference of the Construction History Society in April 2017. Further details are available here: http://www.constructionhistory.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Fourth-annual-CHS-Conference-Draft-Programme-4.0.pdf.

MODELLING MEDIEVAL VAULTS SYMPOSIUM – ABSTRACTS AND PROGRAMME

The final programme for the modelling medieval vaults symposium at the University of Liverpool in London on Thursday 14th July is now available here.

A list of the presentation abstracts are available via the following link.

If you are yet to book your place for the symposium, please do this through Eventbrite.

We are very much looking forward to seeing you there!

Modelling Medieval Vaults Symposium – booking now open

Modelling Medieval Vaults symposium (UoL in London, 14 July 2016, 9:30am—5:00pm)

The University of Liverpool in London, Finsbury Square—Seminar Room 4

Organised by Dr Alex Buchanan and Dr Nick Webb

Tickets can be booked through Eventbrite

Keynote speakers

Professor Santiago Huerta – Technical University of Madrid

Professor Norbert Nußbaum – University of Cologne, with Thomas Bauer and Jörg Lauterbach – Architects and engineers for historic reconstructions, Dresden

Assistant Professor Benjamin Ibarra Sevilla – The University of Texas at Austin

Digital processes

Speakers include:

Dr Danilo Di Mascio – Northumbria University

Dr Nick Webb – University of Liverpool

Dr Rosana Guerra and Dr Paula Fuentes – Technical University of Madrid

Weiyi Pei and Lui Tam – KU Leuven

New questions in 14th-century vaulting

Speakers include:

Dr Alex Buchanan – University of Liverpool

Andrew Budge – Birkbeck College, University of London

The use of digital surveying and analysis techniques, such as laser scanning, photogrammetry, 3D reconstructions or reverse engineering offers the opportunity to re-examine historic works of architecture.

Digital analysis has enabled new research into design processes, construction methods, structural engineering, building archaeology and relationships between buildings. Recent research on Continental European and Central American architecture has established the significance of these techniques, however, as yet there has been little exploitation of digital technologies in the context of medieval architecture in the British Isles. This is despite international recognition of the importance of thirteenth and fourteenth-century English vault design to the history of Gothic architecture in an international context.

The aims of the present symposium are to present new research in this emerging field in order to establish appropriate methodologies using digital tools and identify significant questions for future research in the area.

The symposium will be relevant to anyone with an interest in:

  • Medieval architecture
  • Three-dimensional digital methodologies
  • Digital techniques used for the analysis of historic works of architecture

Symposium cost: £40 for attendees and £25 for students/speakers. Free for student attendees.