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An ancient technique to build a better future

By Andra Ritisan & Charlotte Pierre

Human ambition has always been to move forward, to innovate and to progress. Yet innovation and progress have not always been in tune. In many cases, including the building industry, the desire to innovate has led to serious damage to the environment because of the unreasonable exploitation of natural resources with consequent harmful effects on the climate. For this reason, one of the greatest challenges today is to continue to innovate but with a more sustainable and environmental friendly vision.

Bóveda  tabicada. Exposición "Mas alla de la Estructura. Madrid. Colaboración con S.O.M.
Bóveda tabicada. Exposición “Mas alla de la Estructura. Madrid. Colaboración con S.O.M.

This is also the challenge of the New European Bauhaus, a new program launched by the European Commission. “ It is a creative and interdisciplinary initiative, convening a space of encounter to design future ways of living, situated at the crossroads between art, culture, social inclusion, science, and technology. It brings the Green Deal to our living places and calls for a collective effort to imagine and build a future that is sustainable, inclusive, and beautiful for our minds and for our souls.” (

We, at Mad’in Europe, strongly believe that we can find in the past the key to building in a more sustainable way. Looking back, in the so-called vernacular architecture, buildings were always designed in relation to the climate, local traditions, and the availability of materials. Therefore, these constructions were often energy-efficient and protected the local ecosystems, without forgetting the aesthetic and cultural aspect that is still expressing our diversity and identity. As so, we are deeply convinced that it is in ancestral wisdom and centuries-old traditional knowledge that we find the answers to the unknowns we face in today’s world.

For this reason, on the 23rd of November Mad’in Europe had the pleasure of organizing a webinar (an online seminar), which will be the first of many, on the traditional building technique of the partitioned vault, better known as the “Catalan vault”. This vaulting technique consists of covering an enclosure with thin bricks to form a kind of arch or vault. The bricks are assembled side against the side, contrary to the usual practice. The great advantage of this technique is that only two materials are required: clay to make the bricks, and a binder to glue them together, such as plaster or mortar. 

See the presentation made at our webinar on Bóveda Catalana

The Boveda Catalana. Deeply rooted in the Mediterranean, this technique dates back to antiquity when Arabs and Romans used similar building techniques. The construction of partitioned vaulting systems was consolidated in 14th century Spain and was especially widespread in 18th century Valencia. But it definitely had its moment of splendor at the end of the 19th century with the modernist movement. Illustrious architects such as Antoni Gaudí, Domènech i Montaner or the Valencian architect Rafael Guastavino, who brought this knowledge to the United States, used it extensively in their creations as the system made it possible to cover large spaces such as textile factories, warehouses, cellars, etc., without having to carry out major structural effects.

R. guastavino city hall station photo rhododendrites
Rafael Guastavino took the Bóveda to New York – City Hall Subway Station. Photo: rhododendrites

This challenge was recently taken on by Carlos Martín and the architects Silvia Paredes and Ana Agag when building the cellars of Valdemonjas. This project won the Architizer A+ award in 2016.

Sadly, in the following decades, the Catalan vault has lost popularity and was no longer used as commonly as it once had been. It is thanks to the commitment of specialised masters that this technique was not forgotten. Salvador Gomis Aviño in Valencia, Jordi Domènech Brunet in Catalonia, and Carlos Martín and Julio Jésus Palomino in Madrid are some examples of building masters who share their knowledge and technical know-how on the Catalan vault, by organizing seminars, congresses, and training in educational centers to transmit their know-how. Nowadays, if younger generations do not quickly realize its value, the continuity of this tradition might be endangered.

R.guastavino photo cam miller staircase of baker hall at carnegie mellon university is one of the most famous created by rafael guastavino
R.Guastavino – staircase of Baker Hall at Carnegie Mellon University is one of the most famous created by Rafael Guastavino : Photo Cam Miller

Thankfully, this centuries-old technique is being revived today thanks to our increasing sensitivity for sustainability, for lower energy consumption, and for the use of local resources, and thanks to the commitment of people like the professionals who were involved in our webinar. 

Bóveda professionals have two missions: one is to safeguard and restore our existing heritage while the second is to continue building in a contemporary and innovative mindset. Carlos Martín Jimenez, master builder and master plasterer, is actively involved in research and development in the restoration of vaults of all kinds! He also teaches his knowledge and know-how both in lectures and on the field with his apprentices.

The great advantage of the Catalan vault is that it is possible to do it even where resources are scarce since we only need clay to make the bricks and a binder to glue them, such as plaster or mortar… The name we give to the vault defines its shape, in some cases, and the technique used to build it in others. For example, when we speak of a partitioned vault, we are describing a technique and when we speak of a spherical cap vault [for example] we are referring to the form without specifying the technique.(Jordi Domenech)

This construction technique has many advantages, the main ones being the economic asset in its implementation, because it saves on material and auxiliary means, as no formwork is used. Another advantage is its lightness in relation to its load-bearing capacity, a fact that differentiates it from other materials. And finally, its unlimited capacity to generate all kinds of shapes, geometric solutions, and noble aesthetic finishes.”  (Juan Bube)

During the webinar we were able to learn more about the uses and benefits of this technique from the master builder Salvador Gomis Aviño, who recovers this construction craft in danger of disappearing, experimenting with new materials and techniques to create authentic works of art.

Jose Panteón familia Soriano Manzanet
Panteón Soriano-Manzanet, Vila-Real – Foto: Vicente Jiménez – Arquitectos: Fernando Vegas y Camilla Mileto – Aparejador: Salvador Tomás Márquez – Constructor de bóvedas: Salvador Gomis

With the help of the young architect Constanza Tenboury, we were able to visualise how contemporary architecture is approaching this ancestral technique, designing projects in which tradition and craftsmanship go hand in hand with the avant-garde and innovation, revealing the aesthetic possibilities of the vault for contemporary architecture. 

Julio jesus palomino angui modelo para impresion 3d. modulo para concurso
Julio-Jesus Palomino Anguí – Modelo para impresión 3D. Módulo para concurso

We also counted on the participation of Fernando Vegas and Camilla Mileto, professors of architecture at the Polytechnic University of Valencia (UPV) and creators of the Res-Arquitectura research group. These two professors and architects, who are dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of traditional architectural heritage, advocate the use of the partitioned vault, defending its immaterial value as an artisanal construction technique that uses traditional materials and its sustainable value due to its low energy consumption, also highlighting its economic benefits. 

Fabricarte Cevisama 2018
Fabricarte Cevisama 2018 -Designed by Wesam Al Asali

As we wanted to discover the process of creating the vault from point 0, we had among us the supplier of sustainable materials Juan Antonio Alemán, from the Juan Antonio Alemán factory, supplier of handmade bricks, thanks to whom we were able to discover the essence of the vault. 

Credits : Juan Antonio Aleman

In the words of the Bauhaus program, it is not just about the professionals’ responsibility, we all need to become more informed and responsible in order to build a sustainable future. We need to take action now while there are still craftspeople who can use these traditional techniques.

Together we can help save these techniques. It’s up to us!

Some reading :

  • De terre et de lumière les maisons à coupoles du nord de la Syrie (2011) Editions Al Ayn de Houda Kassatly
  • Biography of Guastavino – Javier Moro: A prueba de Fuego
  • Origen de la bóveda tabicada, Manuel Fortea Luna, Centro de Oficios de Zafra, 2008
  • Brique et architecture dans l’Espagne médiévale (XIIe-XVe siècle) – De Philippe Araguas – Casa de Velásquez, 2003
  • Construcción de bóvedas tabicadas – Ángel Truñó – Instituto Juan de Herrera – 2004
  • De terre et de lumière les maisons à coupoles du nord de la Syrie (2011) Editions Al Ayn de Houda Kassatly
  • Biografía de Guastavino – Javier Moro – A prueba de Fuego

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