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4th Annual Construction History Conference

On Saturday 8th April, we presented a paper to the 4th Annual Conference of the Construction History Society, which took place in the congenial surroundings of Queens’ College, Cambridge. Robert Willis argued that Queens’ was a perfect example of a medieval college, although we were meeting in the more modern buildings on the other side of the Cam, reached by the famous ‘Mathematical Bridge’, designed by James Essex, who also worked on the lantern of Ely Cathedral which we scanned last year. The medieval fabric of Queens’ includes a beautiful example of a lierne vault in its gate-house – perhaps a future scanning project?

Our paper ‘Tracing Tiercerons: an evaluation of the significant properties of thirteenth and fourteenth-century tierceron vaults in England’, is available here: https://livrepository.liverpool.ac.uk/3006059/.

It was good to catch up with old friends, including Santiago Huerta, and to hear the latest news from our friend David Wendland’s project ‘Design Principles in Late-Gothic Vault Construction’ ). On this occasion, Dr Wendland presented with his collaborator Frédéric Degenève, one of the stonemasons working at Strasbourg Cathedral. Their paper ‘How to order fitting components for looping ribs: Design procedures for the stone members of complex Late Gothic vaults’ was a fascinating reconstruction of the methods used to prepare the voussoirs and bosses required by geometrically complex vaults such as the ‘Hall of Arms’ in the Albrechtsburg Meissen, built in 1521 by Jakob Heilmann. Wendland’s digital analysis of such vaults has demonstrated that all the ribs are formed using circular arcs in three dimensions. In this paper, he provided a convincing explanation of how the essential information could be transferred from the tracing floor to the block of stone using copper templates, ‘baivels’ (or square edges) and a rod to record key dimensions. The proposed method has been tested by and found to meet all the stonemason’s requirements, without any need for stereometric projections.

It was also useful to have the opportunity to meet and discuss our project with others who have also used digital recording methods, including Elizabeth Shotton, from Trinity College, Dublin, who shared her Irish Research Council funded project Minor Harbours, which has used digital methods to identify and analyse changes to the smaller Irish harbours over time.

The full conference programme is available here: http://www.arct.cam.ac.uk/Downloads/fourth-annual-chs-conference-programme.pdf and proceedings are available in print from the Construction History Society.

DAACH Article

Our article investigating the use of digital techniques to analyse the choir aisles at Wells cathedral has now been published in ‘Digital Applications in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage’. This article is free to view until 7th May 2017 through the following link:

https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1UkLO7szebZ9pb

Abstract

Architectural historians have identified Wells cathedral as a key monument in the transition between high and late Gothic, a move in part characterised by the rejection of simple quadripartite or tierceron rib vaults for more complex vaults. Here we will show how digital methods are used to reopen questions of design and construction first posed in 1841 by pioneer architectural historian Robert Willis. Digital laser scanning documents vaults accurately, thereby establishing their geometries to a high degree of certainty and, at Wells, highlighting differences between the choir aisle bays which have previously been treated as a single design. Significantly, we will show how digital techniques can be used to investigate these differences further, using point cloud data as a starting point for analysis rather than an end point. Thus we will demonstrate how modern technologies have the potential to reignite historic debates and transform scholarly enquiries.

Webb, N., & Buchanan, A. (2017). ‘Tracing the past: A digital analysis of Wells cathedral choir aisle vaults’, Digit. Appl. Archaeol. Cult. Herit., 4, March 2017, pp. 19–27.

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.

Digital Past 2017

This week Nick presented at Digital Past 2017 in Newport, Wales. The paper focussed on the digital surveying and subsequent analysis of the fourteenth century medieval vaults  in the chancel and north transept of Nantwich St Mary’s Church, Cheshire. This produced two distinct discussions; the first investigating the chancel, which offered an opportunity to hypothesise the medieval design process of the in-situ vaults using reverse engineering. The second, the north transept, contains an incomplete (or possibly destroyed) vault and therefore a series of simulations were developed to postulate the design process, and how the vaults may have looked if completed. 3D digital models of the postulated designs for the north transept can be found on the Nantwich vaults page.

The conference presented numerous exciting and innovative digital heritage projects in Wales and beyond, such as Nick Hannon’s investigations into the Antonine Wall, as well as the Welsh Chapels project which is using games engines as a way of educating the public about heritage.

eCAADe 2016 – Tracing the Past presentation

At eCAADe 2016 (Education and research in Computer Aided Architectural Design in Europe) in Oulu, Finland, Nick presented a paper co-authored with Alex and JR discussing the advantages of different digital surveying methods for the project. The paper can be found via CUMINCAD here.

A contextualised digital heritage workshop led by Danilo Di Mascio was also organised, with help from Anetta Kepczynska-Walczak and myself, the details of which can be found here. We were very grateful for the support given by the University of Oulu, and were encouraged by the discussions held with participants, which provided an enjoyable couple of days leading up to the main conference. We hope to run the workshop again at eCAADe 2017 in Rome!

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ROBERT WILLIS SYMPOSIUM – 16-17 SEPTEMBER 2016

Tracing the Past was inspired by the work of Robert Willis (1800-1875), a famous Cambridge polymath. He was Jacksonian Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy and taught engineering in the early years of that subject.

Willis’s research and teaching was spread over a wide range of
subjects. Our particular interest is in his pioneering study of medieval vaulting, presented as a lecture to the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1841 and published in the first volume of their Proceedings in 1842. Willis proposed a number of hypotheses about the design of medieval vaults which he hoped contemporary architects would be able to test. However the difficulties of gathering suitable data were huge and it’s only now, with the introduction of laser scanning that his ideas can be more fully explored, through projects such as ours.

On 16-17 September 2016, both Nick and Alex will be giving papers in the Robert Willis: Technology, Science and Architecture symposium taking place at Willis’s own college, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Alex will be speaking on Willis’s networks of knowledge and Nick will be presenting a digital update of Willis’s 1842 paper, for which the digital content can be found here. Other speakers will also be discussing Willis’s work on vaults, including Prof Santiago Huerta, Javier Giron, Martin Bressani (speaking on Willis and Viollet-le-Duc) and Antonio Becchi. The full programme is available here: willis-program-a4

The Symposium website includes a digital library of Willis’s publications, making it an incredibly useful resource for those sharing his interests. The Symposium proceedings will be published – further details available soon.

 

 

 

Scanning at Ottery St Mary

For the final day of our visit to Devon we travelled from Exeter to Ottery St Mary Church to scan the vaults there.
Ottery St Mary was built by Bishop Grandisson of Exeter, whose tomb chapel in the West Front of Exeter Cathedral we visited two days earlier. He established Ottery as a college of priests in 1337 and the church is correspondingly impressive, a miniature cathedral on a similar plan to Exeter, with vaults clearly modelled on the high vault of the choir at Wells Cathedral. It is therefore widely assumed that Grandisson worked with the designer responsible for the Exeter West Front, William Joy, and possibly also Thomas of Witney, also employed at Exeter, claims we hope our research may help to substantiate.
Our research will also provide data for investigating the international transmission of design ideas. Ottery’s international significance has already been mentioned in an earlier blog post (link). Like Wells (another building associated with both Witney and Joy), it transforms Gothic architecture in ways picked up by Peter Parler, the designer of Prague Cathedral and other late Gothic architects. Twelfth- and thirteenth-century Gothic churches are generally designed in modular form, as a sequence of identical bays consisting of an arcade arch, with a window above and, in grander churches, a middle story in between. Vaults likewise may be analysed as bays, divided one from the next by a transverse rib and intersected by diagonals which criss-cross  the bay, their junction marked by a boss. The high vault of Wells Cathedral is of international significance as the earliest ‘net’ vault, with diagonal ribs extending across more than one bay. The vault design also includes ‘cusping’, subsidiary mouldings added to the ribs, a design concept originating in window tracery. Ottery follows this model, with the additional development that the diagonals curve in three dimensions rather than two, again like the flowing lines of window tracery. The cusping stands proud of the surface of the vault, adding to the visual conceit that the ribs form a net thrown over the surface of the vault rather than directly relating to its geometry. The church also has vaults with ribs of multiple curvatures, domical vaults and a sixteenth-century fan vault with hanging pendants, making it a very rich resource for our research.
Our trip to Ottery St Mary was funded by the Paul Mellon Centre.

Scanning at Exeter Cathedral

On Wednesday 30th March we travelled to Devon to collect more survey data from two sites; Exeter Cathedral and Ottery St Mary Church. We spent two days at Exeter and will spend a final day at Ottery.

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Surprisingly, we were joined by a team at Exeter Cathedral who were also there to create a model of it. Whereas we were using digital scanning techniques to produce a highly accurate model of the vaults at Exeter, they were using Lego to create a scale model within the cathedral. You can follow their progress here. We were able to scan the uninterrupted length of high vaults along the nave and choir, the central porch of the screen facade, the crossing, the miniature vaults in the pulpitum and those of the sedilia. These miniature vaults are particularly interesting to us, being documented designs by Thomas of Witney, a mason who also worked at Wells Cathedral, a site we’ve already scanned. At both Exeter and Wells, Witney experimented with the use of liernes, additional decorative ribs, of which Exeter’s are some of the earliest surviving examples. With help from the cathedral archaeologist, John Allan, we were able to identify additional sites to survey, such as the site of the former North walk of the cloister, which was situated between the external buttressing to the south of the nave.

The trip to Exeter was funded by the University of Liverpool’s Interdisciplinary Network Fund.

Funding to scan vaults at Ely Cathedral

Through the Lambarde Fund, we have received a grant from the Society of Antiquaries to scan the lierne vaults at Ely Cathedral, which we intend to carry out towards the end of the summer. The main vaults we will scan and analyse are:

  • Retrochoir (tierceron vaults built under Hugh of Northwold  1234 and 1252, thus, like the Chapter House at Chester, immediately after and influenced by the nave at Lincoln).
  • Octagon (tierceron vaults constructed in timber after the collapse of the Norman crossing in 1322 and showing a similar interest in centralised space as the Wells Lady Chapel).
  • First three bays of presbytery (dated c. 1330 and described by Pevsner as the earliest lierne vault in East Anglia) which also includes an aisle vault in first 3 bays of the north aisle.
  • Lady Chapel – lierne vault of a stellate pattern, built after the Octagon and choir so c.1335-50.
  • Prior Crauden’s Chapel – a vault reconstructed by Willis from the evidence of the springing blocks.

We hope to investigate the decisions taken by Willis when reconstructing the vaults of St Catherine’s Chapel and Prior Crauden’s Chapel in the 1840s.

In addition to forming a case study in its own right, we also hope the  data collected will also allow us to explore differences in vaulting methods between the West Country and South Eastern Decorated styles.

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Map of British Medieval Vaults

On the vaults page we have started a map which locates significant Medieval vaults in the British Isles.  So far we have included sites already visited and scanned as well as sites we intend to visit. We have also located some initial vaults of interest which may be documented as the project progresses. Please contact us with suggestions of sites to add!