By Russell Baker
This design thesis project reintroduces the Catalan vault into modern and traditional architectural design and construction. The Catalan vault, also called the Catalan turn, Catalan arch, or timbrel vault, is a type of low arch, vault, or dome made of thin, plain bricks or tiles that are often used to make a structural floor surface. The investigation determines whether or not present day possibilities exist for employing the cohesive system as an alternative to the now, traditional, structural building and problem solving methods, taking into consideration sustainable architectural design and material concerns.
This overlapping tile system differs from standard arches in that it does not rely upon keystones, voussoirs, or gravity for structural strength. Instead, the overlapping tiles, once mortared together, provide cohesive strength between the layers to unify the structure as a single unit. A single layer alone will not stand, but with the addition of each layer of tiles, the structures strength increases. This cohesive system was developed in the autonomous community of Catalonia (a.k.a. Catalunya, Catalonha , or Cataluña) which has its own language, Catalan, and lies in northeastern Spain. The Catalan vault tiling system was introduced to America by the Valencian Spanish architect and contractor, Rafael Guastavino.
This Catalan vault design project is divided into four phases. The first phase includes a literature review and research of the Catalan arch and the works of Rafael Guastavino. More specifically, this phase will explore the invention of the cohesive arch, the use of the arch and its particular history in America, and the "death" of the arch more than sixty years ago due to the increase of labor costs. The second phase encompasses the structural and finite element analysis of the strength of the Catalan arch. The third phase implements and completes an investigation of the cost, strength, and modern sustainable qualities of the Catalan vault compared to traditional methods of building, including steel and concrete constructions, which possibly pose environmental sensitivity issues. This investigation phase raises the question could this model become a contemporary structural solution, sustainably, socially, and culturally, for domains where labor is cheap due to global economic issues in the near future? The fourth phase responds to this question through the employment of the Catalan arch in a proposed architectural project which will be simulated through the construction of an actual model of the cohesive system. The final goal of this architectural thesis project is to prove, or possibly even disprove, the potential values and benefits of reintroducing the Catalan vault into modern and traditional architectural design and construction.