Vaults are curved masonry surfaces for roofs and ceilings, able to give shelter and protection. Fireproof and very durable, they were the only massive constructions available for such purposes before modern reinforced concrete was invented. Vaulted ceilings have often been a major issue in the creation of architectural space—as dominating elements with sculptural quality, and as fascinating constructions, often elegant, sometimes astonishing or even daring, always artful, and requiring and demonstrating great expertise and skill in their design and building. In early stone architecture, vaults built with horizontal circular courses can already be characterized as spatial structures. Since the early Great Civilizations, vaults were constructed with blocks arranged in radial bed joints—they could be built with great economy, with complex shape and adapting to irregular plans, as they are still in modern vernacular architecture, such as in Central Asia or in northern Africa. In Late Antiquity, vaults made with dressed stone show great ability in the geometric design—this art was later resumed both in the Middle East and in European Renaissance architecture. In Imperial Rome, vaults made of concrete reached enormous spans, were robust enough to last many centuries, and could be built virtually in any shape. Vaults of brick or stone masonry or of dressed stonework are among the greatest masterpieces of architecture, including the marvelous vaults in Persian architecture, the high vaults of Gothic cathedrals perfectly balanced upon slender pillars, the magnificent spatial inventions of Baroque vaulting, the great domes, and finally the creation of modern shell structures. By principle, vaults are stable by their shape. Their equilibrium demands curvature, regularly resulting in shapes with complex geometry. Therefore, they are very demanding in design, planning, and construction. Systems of anchoring or abutment have to be devised to contain the lateral thrust, and a shape must be created that enables the stability by counterbalancing the heavy components within the vault. Moreover, the building of the curved shape requires form control during bricklaying, geometric design of the temporary support structure, and, in case of stone structures, the formulation of precise specification for producing the single building elements. Therefore, beyond symbolic values, ideas of space in architecture, and the expertise and virtuosity of planners and builders, vaulted ceilings also reflect the historical development of applied geometry and mechanics. Their study gives an insight to the knowledge society that created the buildings.
History of Vaulted Structures
Although it is difficult to trace a linear history of vaults in architecture, the beginning of spatial shell structures made of masonry with radial joints can be identified with the early monumental masonry architecture built with serial blocks, both in Mesopotamia and in Egypt. In stone structures, barrel vaults made with radial joints appear as extruded arches in Greek architecture; there are also examples of Hellenistic domes built in dressed stones on radial beds. More complex spatial structures were realized in the Roman Empire using concrete—a new construction system made of rubble masonry and hydraulic lime mortar with construction details in regular stone or brick masonry. In this context, cross vaults appear, and shells with complex geometry and great spans were built, like the Pantheon in Rome, the vaults and domes in the Villa Adriana at Tivoli, and the baths at Baiae (Italy). In Late Antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages, the development of vaults is characterized by intensive exchange across the Mediterranean. The vaults in the Middle East and Central Asia can be seen as a synthesis between Hellenistic and Roman architecture and construction, on the one hand, and the oriental practice of brick vaulting that enabled the construction of thin shells without needing wooden formwork, on the other. Huge spans were realized, and construction systems based on diaphragm arches connected by masonry shells were created—the latter developed intricate and fascinating spatial compositions, extending the beauty of complex geometric patterns to the entire architectural space, as can be seen in the architecture of the Islamic world from Persia to Muslim Spain. In central Europe, masonry vaults with wide spans on slender piers were built from the 11th century on. The groundbreaking development of medieval architecture is the rib vault. The concept of Gothic vaults is determined by the definition of the ribs as a primary feature, describing autonomous curves, to which the surfaces adapt—hence the simplicity of the curves of the arches, usually defined by circle segments, correlates with a relative complexity in the geometry of the shells. This tradition was very persistent and in much later times inspired the concept of construction in modern architecture. As an alternative to the Gothic practice, in early modern European architecture geometric concepts were reintroduced that derived from Roman Antiquity. Since the Renaissance, the design of vaults based on the definition of geometric surfaces was proposed, developing new geometric procedures for their planning. Finally, in the industrial age, the introduction of new materials and modern structural mechanics gave way to the development of shell structures in masonry that still dwell on the original qualities of vaulting: durable, fireproof roofs and ceilings with complex shape, as beautiful (nearly) as the firmament. The following historical division of the vault is tentative, strongly depending also on the existing literature, and exposes many desiderates for future research and synthesis.
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