Plaited stereotomy

Some time ago, we were likely to think that stereotomy was a dead science, only surviving in some limited intellectual circles.Nowadays, only in a few European universities there are still some departments concerned with finding out about this science and recreating it, the mighty cultural phenomenon generated by stone masonry. We are dealing with a scientific discipline that, for several centuries, led the art of building to the highest intellectual summits.

Since the early Middle Ages, the vaults were designed as spatial networks so that they could be interpreted as separate arches, that is as curved lines whose geometrical shape could be monitored by the significant medieval geometrical tool: the plan/elevation projection.

Later on, in Renaissance times, a higher level of geometrical knowledge  will enable to define more accurately the complex volume of the voussoires with which the classical vaults were built, simple-shaped vaults but complex in their breakdown. In the following centuries, stone masonry, supported by a constantly evolving geometry, would reach its highest degree of development: utter freedom. From then on, any architectural shape can be imagined with the assurance of achieving the cutting of the voussoires’ structure more appropriate and spectacular. In the XIXth century, when this development had reached its very summit, stereotomy collapses and falls into oblivion; the massive masonries of traditional architecture succumbs to give way to a new architecture based on a structural set up never imagined before.

Nevertheless, there is still some hope. New geometrical skills gave way to new developments in stereotomy. Digital monitoring allows expansion of the limits of geometry. 13 These new tools, as in the past, enable us to explore new fields which were unattainable in stereotomy. When we believed that stone masonry belonged to the past, it has a great revival: the beauty of its proposals allows us to foresee a future, maybe elitist and sophisticated, but real and possible, for this discipline of architecture which we dreaded obsolete.

José Carlos Palacios Madrid, September 2008

Plaited Stereotomy