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Design Principles in Late-Gothic Vault Construction - A New Approach Based on Surveys, Reverse Geometric Engineering and a Reinterpretation of the Sources

Final Report Summary - REGOTHICVAULTDESIGN (Design Principles in Late-Gothic Vault Construction - A New Approach Based on Surveys, Reverse Geometric Engineering and a Reinterpretation of the Sources)

During the 15th and 16th centuries, the challenge of creating vaulted ceilings lead to increasingly complex solutions in late Gothic architecture. These ambitious, astonishing and sometimes daring constructions rank amongst the finest masterpieces of architecture – extremely demanding from the structural point of view and particularly challenging in their geometric design. Their builders managed to overcome the difficulties of planning the complicated spatial meshes of stone ribs, providing instructions for the production of their single components and their assembly on the building site, and building curved vault surfaces that correspond with the equilibrium condition of spatial structures.
The project aimed to understand how these structures were designed, which geometric concepts were used, how the information was transferred from design to construction, which mathematical and structural theories were implemented. This can help us to learn more about organization and communication on the building sites, and gives an insight to the knowledge society in the late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. It also contributes to better understanding the particular shape of the vaults and their components, which is intrinsically linked to the procedures of the design and making.
The main sources of the research were the buildings themselves – working backwards from surveys to the building processes, proceeding by reverse engineering and employing methods not common until now, hypotheses on the design were formulated directly from the built artefact. Complementary, these processes are reflected and reproduced in experiments in scale models and also in full scale. This enabled detailed descriptions of the processes of planning and realization, reproducing the same particular features as observed on the artefacts, and giving way to more detailed observations on the archaeological evidence. The revision of the previous state of research on the design principles and construction of late Gothic vaults, also lead to a re-interpretation of the sources, such as lodge books, treatises, and drawings.
One focus of the research was the thorough understanding of the geometric concepts used by the builders for the overall design as well as for planning the single components of the structure. These concepts were analyzed in the context of the historical development of applied geometry. This has also significantly improved our understanding of the early Treatises of Steretomy – a genre of textbooks about planning stone structures with complex shapes which developed throughout the Modern period.
Another main issue is the possible connection between geometric and structural design of the vaults. As we know today, vaulted ceilings are structures that are stable by their shape. The question is how this interrelation was conceived by the builders, and on which notions of structural behaviour the design was based. A hypothesis on the historical “theory of mechanics” of vaulted structures could be formulated, giving new insight to the structural concepts among the builders in pre-industrial ages.
Moreover, the relation between the geometric design of vaults and proportion systems in the architecture has been investigated.
As result, a complete picture of the design and planning of late Gothic vaults has been formulated, ranging from the general concept to the detail. The role of media used for generating and transferring geometric information from design to realization - in particular scale drawings, setting-out in full scale, and stonemasons’ templates -, has been clarified and contextualized in the history of architectural design, structural mechanics, and geometry. The experimental studies carried out for the different stages of design and construction provide the basis for a transfer of knowledge from research to the restoration practice.