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Department of Architecture

PhD Candidate in the Natural Material Innovation group M Wesam Al Asali was lead architect on the FabricArte, Vaulting Craft and Modern Construction project in Valencia, Spain

Craft in construction is usually considered to be limited to decorative arts and regarded as time-consuming and labour intensive. But using thin-tile vaulting, a Mediterranean technique, an artisan converts terracotta tiles into structural elements that can be utilitarian or expressive. Craftsmanship in modern construction is one subject of Wesam Al Asali's research as a PhD student of architecture at the University of Cambridge. Light Earth Designs (LED) and Wesam Al Asali have been working on the interface  between traditional craftsmanship and modern rapid construction in thin-tile vaulting. The design team worked on the project FabricArte: a three-vault pavilion in the central hallway of the Valencia Expo. The project is curated by the organisations Tile of Spain (ASCER) and the Instituto de Tecnología Cerámica  (ITC), both working each year with artists, architects, and researchers on projects that aim to push the boundaries of the use of ceramic as a material and an architectural element.

Due to Expo regulations, the time frame to build on-site is very narrow. The designers developed a way to build the vaults in a workshop and then slice and transfer them to the site to be reassembled. The geometrical configuration with which the three vaults were sliced is inspired by gothic vaulting, commonly seen  in the historic buildings of Valencia. In rib and rib-less gothic vaults, modular units mirror, repeat, and array to compose the main structure—a concept that inspired the design to optimise labour and time. As a result, the vault manufacturing was systemised for a rapid in-situ construction, but it also avoided using heavy machinery, and the process remained handmade.

The architecture of the pavilion shows two systems of structures, a tension and a compression one, interacting and integrating in three modules. The transition from a full-height to a flat vault experiments with spatial and structural properties of geometries and demonstrates different uses of unreinforced ceramic for both expressive stand-alone structure and flat slab system that can be used in housing construction. While the added bottom layer of tiles hid the patterns of cuts, the flooring of the pavilion reflects the lines as a diagram of the process of manufacturing to the viewer.

The technique (Bóveda tabicada) is rooted in Valencia. The oldest document mentioning this craft is a letter in 1382 by King Peter IV of Aragon describing builders in Valencia using a rapid and efficient vaulting technique.  A tradition of vault and stair-making continues thanks to workers and masters who kept it alive. LED worked with one of those builders, Salvador Gomis Aviño, and his team, who, in addition to restoration projects, work on contemporary thin-tile vaulting projects including the Mortuary Chapel for Soriano Manzanet Family by Vegas and Mileto.

LED has been working on developing thin-tile technique and transferring it to new areas in which it can be used as a natural and low-cost building method. Michael Ramage, LED partner and head of Natural Material Innovation group at the University of Cambridge, worked on thin-tile shell structures made from local materials, usually from earth found on-site, to make unfired earthen tiles. After working on projects in South Africa, North America, and the UK, LED has recently finished the Rwanda Cricket Stadium, which was one of the finalists of the "Project of the Year" award on Arch Daily.

The Project process and can be seen in this time-laps video


Fabricart 3

Fabricart 2

Fabricart 4

Fabricart 5

Fabircart 6