The hallucinatory life of the sepulveda vault for eight centuries and across two continents | Culture

The one of the seplado vault, a constructive invention arisen very probably in the Levant of the low Average Age, is almost a history of adventures. It has transoceanic journeys, disappearances and experiments to convince unbelievers, and leads from the chapels and convents of the Reconquest in Valencia to the first factories of the industrial revolution in Catalonia, and from the economic explosion of the United States in the second half of the century XIX to the reconstructions that followed the terrible wars of the 20th century in Europe.

Known in its different variants as Catalan vault, Extremadura vault, Roellón vault, volta in foglio, voûte plate or Saracen vault, his list of names gives the measure of a trip he has recently reviewed in A study the professor of the Polytechnic of Madrid Santiago Huerta. Passionate to the obsession of the vaults and the history of construction, Huerta explains that in all cases it is the same technique, consisting of sticking bricks to others without support (falsework), in the air, using plaster, that sets quickly and allows to form "self-supporting arches". On that first row, a second sheet of bricks is then built. And ready.

Its great success for so long is because it is very cheap and fast, because it is very thin (usually five to 10 centimeters, although it can reach only three), light and simple, but at the same time it is very resistant to load and to fire. "It is the most precious element of our construction: it allows the most complex forms to be executed with simplicity and speed, it does not require formwork and it has great resistance in relation to its lightness and the simplicity of its components", wrote the legendary architect Antoni Gaudí (Esther Redondo Martínez picks up the appointment in his doctoral thesis). However, that simplicity has also been its great burden, because with some exceptions, they used to be plastered with plaster and paint, so they are very difficult to recognize at first sight, explains Huerta.

But, although often almost invisible, they have always been there, he insists, in all kinds of constructions since his invention, which he places at the crossroads that once was the peninsular Levante among the Roman, Visigoth, Islamic and Christian cultures. The oldest remains found so far is the case of a staircase in an Islamic house of the twelfth century in Siyasa, Murcia. The following examples are found in the Valencia of the second half of the 14th century -both in constructions and in writings of the time- and, later, its proliferation is widely documented in chapels, convents, churches and palaces, among others, in Catalonia , Valencia, Aragon and Extremadura. Which are precisely the places where the subject has been studied, so its spread could go much further, says Huerta. "They have been used frequently in Spain since the 16th century, but their actual diffusion is unknown," he writes.

What is clear is that from the seventeenth century is documented in Castile, in Roussillon in France, in Italy and, later, in Germany, where some treaties mention it in the nineteenth century. Back in the peninsula, many factory buildings of the second half of the 19th century in Catalonia were built using this type of vault, which would become a very common element of Catalan modernism, with Antoni Gaudí to the head.

The architect Rafael Guastavino in the construction of the Boston Public Library in 1889.
The architect Rafael Guastavino in the construction of the Boston Public Library in 1889.

In that context he developed his technique Rafael Guastavino, an architect and builder of Valencian origin who extended and popularized later in the USA his improved version (for example, he began to leave it in view, without plastering) of the Catalan vault. The vaulted interiors of some of New York's most iconic buildings - the Grand Central Terminal, the Metropolitan, Columbia University, the Ellis Island reception pavilion or the former City Hall subway station - are among the thousand of buildings that Guastavino signed in the USA.

Professor Huerta tells, in his office of the School of Architecture of the Polytechnic of Madrid, the efforts that the Valencian had to do, including resistance tests, to overcome the distrust of the Americans and convince them of the benefits of a system which, at first glance, may seem weak and insufficient to withstand large structures.

But the certain thing is that they resist perfectly - in the Madrilenian school they have made their own experiments, some of them, for the famous architect Norman Foster- despite its simplicity and low cost. Two points that re-marked its resurgence in the old continent from 1940. "The partitioned vault experienced a renaissance in Europe due to the shortage of materials (iron and cement) during the war and the post-war period. In particular, it was widely used in Spain, after the Civil War from 1936 to 1939, in the reconstruction of the devastated regions and in the restoration of bombed buildings, "Huerta writes.

Vault of the Museum of America of Madrid, work of Luis Moya.
Vault of the Museum of America of Madrid, work of Luis Moya.

Although there are clear examples in the works of Luis Moya Blanco, Ángel Truñó and Ignacio Bosch Reitg, its real scope "during the works of reconstruction and restoration of the Spanish postwar period is not yet well known; only isolated cases have been studied (for example, Villanueva de la Cañada, Casas Baratas in Girona) and titled The domes partitioned in Germany: the long migration of a constructive technique writes the specialist.

Indeed, the end of this trip is the Munich of after the Second World War, something surprising in a place without previous examples of a partitioned vault. In this case, Huerta unravels the mystery by following in the footsteps of architect Carl Sattler and builder Max Rank, in love with the partitioned vault. The second had met her in Spain-her company had a subsidiary in this country-and during a trip to Seville in 1934, her father, Josef, had already declared his enthusiasm: "The ability of the masons to settle and bend is amazing. with bricks only three centimeters thick, they build the most beautiful vaults ".

For his part, Sattler had known the technique by a master builder with whom he worked in the construction of a villa in Florence, where he returned years later, in 1940, sent by the German Government, precisely, to study the mechanism. Thus, when Sattler and Rank began to work together in the reconstruction of the Central Bank Bavaria in Munich, they made the most logical use of the vault they loved so much. And the Rank company would use them many more times until 1960.


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