Brick vaults and beyond

The transformation of a historical structural system (1830-1930)

Arnaud 1925

Today, building vaults is no longer part of everyday building practice. However, for centuries vaults had been regarded as the ideal structure to span imposing spaces in cloisters, churches, cathedrals and palaces. Several studies have been devoted to the topic worldwide and cover the evolution of vaulting from Antiquity until its decline, typically situated around the 18th century. However, the introduction of new construction materials in the 19th and 20th centuries such as iron, steel and reinforced concrete, together with changing architectural styles and functional needs, growing structural insights and a better delineation of the role of building actors, ensures this later period is exciting to study.

The aim of the BELVAU project is to study the evolution of vault construction in Belgium in the 19th and 20th centuries, taking into account the changing context of the young industrializing country. The study builds on Paula Fuentes' expertise of vaulting in earlier periods, as well as on the considerable research efforts recently undertaken in the IRP research project to map the Belgian building sector in these two centuries.

Vaults are fascinating study objects: they influence not only the aesthetics, but they are a basic element of the structural system. Consequently, the research questions focus on both aspects. What type of vaults were built during this period? Did these vaults follow traditional techniques? Which innovations were introduced? Did these innovations influence the aesthetical appearance? What are the specific features of Belgian vaults in relation with other European countries? What was the relation between the vault and the covered space? Who were the actors involved? How did the theoretical development of structural analysis influence the design and construction? Via literature study, archival research and in situ geometrical and structural analysis of several vaults, the project will contribute to improve the heritage value assessments of vaulted buildings from this period.

The research project resulted in several publications, a symposium and a book (open access).