About Building Stereotomy: Theory and Practice

About Building Stereotomy: Theory and Practice

Giuseppe Fallacara (Politecnico di Bari, Italy) and Claudia Calabria (Politecnico di Bari, Italy)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0029-2.ch024
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This contribution tries to reintroduce Stereotomy within the field of “research by design”: the discipline, in fact, can be used as a means of re-composition of the design, project and execution phases. Starting from the origin of this break-up, the focus moves to the actual value of geometric and formal prefiguration and to the validity criteria that make its re-introduction desirable, both as educational discipline and design tool. In addition, it's suggested a line of research related to its critical update and the methods through which figure out the possible outcomes of its application. Particular attention is given to the prototype: only the material realization allows to obtain a tangible result to creative speculation. In the last part 7 stone prototypes will be presented. They have been developed during recent years as a result of the attempt to combine multiple instances into a synthetic architectural object.
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Stereotomy is defined very clearly by Frezier in 1760: it is nothing more than an application of the art of trait geometrique that carpenters transferred from timber to stone. In a few words, the technique of projective geometry is used with specific reference to the stone vaults processing: stereotomy is based precisely on the codification of trait in relation to the needs of material and construction.

Although discipline is developed in the sixteenth century, it is possible to find its prodromes in the Gothic methods that already comprehend overturning plans and templates. Afterwards, especially in France and Spain, there was a proliferation of treatises in which the tracement techniques were systematized and contextualized with a huge series of records.

The life cycle of Stereotomy can be simplified into three essential periods: birth, evolution and decline. If the life of stereotomy was associated to a precise timeframe, just to understand it through a simplified synthesis, this measure can be defined in about three hundred years: born into the sixteenth century with Philibert de l'Orme, fully-developed into the seventeenth century with Girard Desargues, declined into the eighteenth century with the proliferation of repetitive treaties. The death comes, paradoxically, with the achievement of the theoretical apex in the eighteenth century when Gaspard Monge formulated his descriptive geometry theory in the third year of the French Republic: this moment corresponded to the death of stereotomy.

The new theoretical speculation separates practice and conceptual abstraction, focusing more on the latter than the first. The architectural works didn’t guard anymore the magnificence of thought, but that sense of necessity was produced from the abstraction. Moreover, in the different cultural climate, the publication of the ”Essay sur l'architecture” of the Abbot Laugier represents a harsh critique against the excessive weirdness of the stereotomic construction, which was followed by other influential voices among which Antoine-Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy that sarcastically declared: l'art du trait est baroque!

The increasing diffusion of new approaches and building materials prepared the world to a new constructive logic based on materials lightness and elasticity.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Adjacent Possible: The term is used in the meaning of creative and innovative possibilities contained in the immediate future and that, as Steven Johnson says, grow as they are explored.

Programmed Modularity: The vaulted structure may be ruled by the industrial principle of “programmed modularity” that is defined through its decomposability in a system of finite and repeatable elements. This makes possible the optimization of material and workmanship.

Tensegrity: The term, coined by Buckminster Fuller, is a contraction of “tensional integrity”. It describes a structural form made from a series of discontinuous elements in compression, opposed and balanced by a system of forces in tension. This creates an internal prestress which gives a global stabilization of the structure.

Invariants Principles: These are basic principles that characterize the stereotomic object, and involve static, expressive and technical / geometrical aspects. Through the presence of the three invariants can be distinguished the Stereotomic structures among all the others. In fact, the difference is the simultaneous and combinable presence of the three principles and their close interconnection.

Spatial Decoration: Intended as a decorative texture directly conceived through the articulation of the vault and therefore closely related to its spatial and constructive conformation.

Penrose Periodic Tiling: Pattern of geometric figures that allow to obtain an aperiodic infinite tessellation. Discovered by Roger Penrose and Robert Ammann in 1974.

Voute Plate: Vaulted structure with flat geometry but working in compression through inclination and composition of the voussoirs.

Stereotomy: the set of geometrical knowledge and techniques of drawing and cutting the blocks of stone and their assembly into complex structures (vault, arch, dome, etc.)

Aggregation: The term translates the juxtaposition of elements in order to compose a vaulted surface. The meaning intended here is related to the “aggregability” as the combination of parts that make up a sort of structural interweaving, ie simultaneous expression of constructive logic and aesthetic significance.

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