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simone swan


i build nubian vaults out of small adobe bricks in southwest texas, on the texas-mexico border and in mexico. we also teach the skill to people around us. the ancient engineering technique stems from village masons in upper egypt and is now being taught in US deserts by adobe alliance, inc. it is wonderful to see the guastavino vaults in photos here since i grew up with those in downtown manhattan, and in the oyster bar.



The timbrel vault is back !



And check out this site for more fascinating pictures:

Ogbeifun, Edoghogho


I am excited about the workings of this age long art and will want to know more about it and use in the twenty-first century. How are where can one learn the art?

Frame and Form


very interesting post!
here an article about the prize World Building of the Year, the Mapungubwe Interpretation Center in South Africa. I hope you enjoy it!


kris de decker


Thanks a lot for the link, I dedicated a new post to it:


Mark Van den Borre


One of the pictures referenced is not available anymore except at archive.org:


Kris De Decker


Thanks for the note and the link, Mark. I have put the picture in the article, before it disappears altogether.

Ben Hyde


There is currently an exhibit at the Boston Public Library about Guastavino's work and it travels to the National Building Mueseum in Washinton next. Ochsendorf will be giving a talk at the Library on the 17th.



While reading about the timbrel vault I reminded of the structure of nacre which consists of platelets of aragonite interwoven with each other embedded in an organic matrix and is much tougher than pure aragonite.
here's a link to an article about nacre

Scott Mann


The renewed interest in Catalan vaulting is very exciting and I enjoyed your post. I would like to send you a quick clarification here:

"The timbrel vault does not rely on gravity but on the adhesion of several layers of overlapping tiles which are woven together with fast-setting mortar. If just one layer of thin tiles was used, the structure would collapse, but adding two or three layers makes the resulting laminated shell almost as strong as reinforced concrete."

Catalan vaulting relies on gravity and significant geometric calculations were made so that the force of the structure's weight follows a thrust line to abutments and/or the foundation. The point that I think is being missed here is that the method for constructing a tiled vault allows the build up of 'gravity defying' layers. Because the tiles are thin and light and the mortar is sticky and fast drying, the builder can assemble the vault by cantilevering tiles in a herring bone pattern without having to rely on centering formwork to hold the vault in place.

An important concept to remember is that traditional masonry construction (including thin shell tile vaulting) only works in compression. Masonry has virtually no tensile strength and isn't comparable to steel.

To develop this concept, check out the hanging cable arch app over at MIT's active statics page:

Thanks for the post, I hope these clarifications are well received.



Great for everything but earthquakes.



Santa María del Mar and the Cathedral of Gerona are not examples of this kind of vaults: they are built with stone (this is very heavy); although this type of mediterranean vaults cover wider spaces (with enormous buttresses)

Nor is a timbrel vault those Gaudi arches in your picture under the Güell Chapel.
The Gandesa winery, built by Cèsar Martinell,a Gaudi disciple, has those vaults, although they are not in your picture. Those arches are built with the same tecnique of timbrel vaults, but they are not vaults. Their parabolic curve are typical of Gaudi.

To my knowledge, when you add two or more layers, each layer, have a different direction.
So, if one layer -in a herring bone pattern- goes from "right" to "left", the second layer just above it goes from "left" to "right" (that is: you are forming Xs with the bricks of both layers)

This way, you are directing the natural impulses of the gravity operating on the bricks in opposite directions.
(distributing the forces in a way that they weight less)

Also, when you cross the tiles, you are fortifing the structure in a similar way to when you built a wall: you do not pile up the stones or bricks: each row does not match its superior and its inferior rows (locking the whole wall)

This was a very popular way of building in Spain, so you do not needed a specialist, but a skilled builder.

Guastavino adds two things:

his vaults are not covered with plaster or lime morter, adding a very modern touch.
The second one is that it tends to cover big surfaces.

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