The partitioned vault: Why is other people’s always better?

Citadel Barcelona. The figure on the left represents the masonry dome, while the one on the right, by Francisco de la Pierre, projects the partitioned vault (1724). Author provided

Sometimes from outside the home the qualities that one has are appreciated and that, as known, are not disseminated or their real significance is known. This is what happened with the partitioned vault in military engineering, a construction system of which vestiges of its use in the 12th century in Cieza in Murcia are already known, and which was technically transferred from North Africa.

It is a simple, lightweight operating arrangement, built by laying flat a small ceramic piece, a brick, only about 1.5 cm thick, joined with plaster, which, when “falling asleep” (that is, by taking consistency), it becomes stable by itself in a short period of time. Depending on your needs, two or three layers can be built on top of the first one.

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Example of a rasilla partitioned vault.
Scielo, Author provided

It is an extraordinarily fast and inexpensive construction system, and for this reason it was widely used in the Aragonese crown from the 15th century on. With him the hall churches were built in the 17th and 18th centuries in Aragon, Valencia and Catalonia in just five years. It was also used by Modernism, in whose professional practice it lasted well into the Spanish postwar period due to the lack of concrete. It is still being used in Spain in rural areas.

A little history

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Portrait of Juan de Herrera.
Brandi-Maea / Wikimedia Commons

Felipe II created, in 1582, the Royal Mathematical Academy of Madrid, under the direction of Juan de Herrera, to train the King’s engineers. In his later teaching, military engineering treatises inspired by Vauban proliferated, where the absorption of the impact of the projectiles was entrusted to the thickness of the defensive wall and the angle of incidence on this element, hence the fortifications were projected with a starry shape.

The impact was resolved either by the thickness of the walls and vaults or by damping them by means of earth and even manure, especially in the design of the powder magazines (hence the term “bomb-proof”). This mechanical principle, which therefore acts through the counterweight of the construction elements, is diametrically opposed to the simple cohesive system of the partitioned vault.

After the constitution of the Corps of Military Engineers in 1711, and with the entry into Barcelona of the Bourbon troops in 1714, Jorge Próspero de Verboom, general engineer, transferred the Academy of Mathematics to this city. Among the functions of the Corps was not only defensive fortification, but also the construction of engineering and civil architecture.

With the study of the projects of the Collective Catalog of the “Collections of Maps, Plans and Drawings” of the State Archives it has been possible to determine that, apart from the gravitational construction in the defensive curtains and the use of masonry or brick threads placed edge for the construction of vaults, used the partitioned technique.

With this procedure, they designed barracks, stables, food stores, customs, hospitals, churches, lighthouses and even strictly defensive elements, such as guard booths or powder stores, where the ceramic pieces were arranged flat and, therefore, cohesive.

Here it is observed that the first projects carried out by the Corps of Engineers, such as the construction of the fortification of the Citadel of Barcelona, ​​incorporate de facto in his designs the partitioned vault, the Catalan volta, used for sketching domes, vaults, slab floors or stairs. They thus replicate and reproduce this civil construction practice widely developed in this geographical environment. At first, there are dubios between the gravitational and cohesive system (the first is very heavy and better resists impacts, while the second is very thin, but inexpensive, and can be used in places that are not strategic in defense) . This is seen in the duplicity in some projects of domes or sentry boxes that are made with masonry and a simple vault with ceramic.

French export

In this same period, Charles Fouquet, Duke of Belle-Isle and Marshal of France, had known these vaults operating under the orders of the Duke of Berwick. In the Empordà territory, as well as in Conflent, Vallespir and Roussillon, the area of ​​some of his campaigns, this usual construction of vaults and staircases was called voûte à la Roussillon.

The curiosity and admiration for this type of light vaults led him, years later, to build the stables of the Château de Bizy, nicknamed le Petit Versailles, as opposed to the use of the heavy masonry used at that time in those of Chantilly and Versailles.

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Stables of the Château de Bizy.
Orao productions / Château de Bizy

Another French military man, the Count of Espié, traveled to Perpignan to meet the workers who had worked for the Duke of Belle-Isle, building with the same type of vaults in Toulouse in 1750 his Mansion of Espié. The Count had observed that, among the properties of the partitioned vault, was its resistance to fire, compared to the traditional use in France of the easily combustible wood. The fire had destroyed buildings, produced major fires and devastated entire cities in the neighboring country, such as Rennes.

This circumstance led the Count to try to patent this system to build fireproof covers, justifying it through the publication of the Maniere de rendre toutes sortes d’édifices fireproof (1754). The work was a great success and was immediately translated into English and German, and also into Spanish as How to make buildings fireproof (1776) by Joaquín de Sotomayor.

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Cover of Maniere de rendre toutes sortes d’édifices fireproof.
Gallica

Attempts to homologate it in the Académie royale d’architecture (1755) failed, imposing its members la notre maniere, changing, in the dome, the flat arrangement of the brick for the edge one and including the recommendation to have metal reinforcements inside.

Both soldiers defended these ceramic vaults for their constructive and economic ease, fire resistance and ease of replacement. For this reason the partitioned vault has had more critical fortune in the military engineers and in the Académie royale des sciences that among architects, although Pierre Patte, who was well acquainted with the debates on the partitioned vault, which was used in the Royal Abbey of Panthemont and in the Treasury of Notre-Dame, disseminated them through the Cours d’architecture (1771-1777) under the auspices of Jacques-François Blondel.

The teaching outreach would be carried out first in l’École Polytechnique and then through Traité Théorique et Pratique de l’Art de Bâtir by Jean-Baptiste Rondelet, whose text was the reference in the European Academies of Architecture.

Guastavino’s system

The story will continue as a result of the Chicago fires of 1871 and Boston of 1872, and the enactment of the Fire Regulations. There, the figure of the Valencian Rafael Guastavino Moreno, trained in Barcelona, ​​will provide the different patents with a partitioned vault, in this case armed as a building method, that is, a ceramic vault with steel, the type of vault imposed by the French academy.

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Boston Public Library, with vaults designed by Rafael Guastavino.
Brian Johnson / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

We can say that the French military learned from the enemy and that the chauvinism of the Académie recommending the assembly of the ceramic factory would induce Guastavino, perhaps without knowing it, to spread this ancient way of construction in the United States.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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