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Leonardo da Vinci once observed, "An arch consists of two weaknesses

which, leaning one against the other, make a strength." I was reminded of
this last month when I attended a press briefing on arches throughout
history at the AAAS meeting in St. Louis. (Yes, I am only now getting around
to blogging about it. It's been a busy few weeks, and the following required
a great deal of rigorous thought.)
St. Louis is known for its Gateway Arch, a landmark structure that opened in
October 1965 to commemorate Thomas Jefferson's 1803 Louisiana Purchase.
The Finnish architect Eero Saarinen designed the enormous steel parabola to
symbolize the gateway to the American West. There's a very specific
geometric term for the arch's shape: it's essentially an inverted model of a
flexible chain or rope suspended from two points. The non-inverted model's
shape is known as a catenary. Its name is courtesy of the Dutch
mathematician Christian Huygens, who dubbed the curve catenarius, from
the Latin word for "chain."
Saarinen didn't copy the classic inverted catenary shape perfectly; he
elongated it, thinning it out a bit towards the top to produce what one
encyclopedia entry describes as "a subtle soaring effect." Maybe not subtle
enough. In 1980, a man named Kenneth Swyers took the whole "soaring
effect" a bit too literally. He tried to parachute onto the arch's span and
died in the attempt, garnering a post-humous Darwin Award for his efforts.
Okay, so parachuting onto the arch is a bad idea. You can still ride a little
egg-shaped tram to the top if you're so inclined, but it was bitterly cold out
-- and Jen-Luc Piquant gets claustrophobic -- so we took a pass on that
particular tourist attraction. The brave souls with fire in their hearts and
appropriate winter outerwear who did ascend reported that the spectacular
view was marred somewhat by the disconcerting sensation of swaying
whenever the wind picked up. In fact, the arch is designed to sway up to 18
inches in the wind.
There are very good physics-based reasons why Saarinen chose an inverted
catenary shape to build the Gateway Arch. Leonardo's codependent "leaning
weaknesses" describes a delicate balance of opposing forces that gives rise
to a certain degree of structural stability. A chain suspended from two points
will always try to form a catenary. This happens because the chain wants to
hang in a state known as "pure tension," so it will always adjust itself to find
this balanced state. Only tension forces can exist in the hanging chain;

in real time. rather than outward at the base. although the inverted catenary is very stable horizontally. using a computer graphics technique called particle spring modeling. particularly for spanning a horizontal distance. The 17th-century English scientist Robert Hooke phrased it best: "As hangs the flexible chain. they're almost like five-person coffins." Saarinen developed his variation on a catenary theme in consultation with an architectural engineer named Hannskarl Bandel. Remember the scene in Revenge of the Sith where Yoda fights while wrapped in a cloak? That's a particle spring model. Today. in 3D. (I'll take an uneducated stab in the dark here and surmise that it has something to do with needing more mass to reinforce the "pull" between the arch's two "leaning weaknesses" at that particular juncture.) That's also why the little tram cars to the top are so small. This extra stability is important because. Louis arch rises to some 630 feet. or the arch falls and crushes you. but it transfers more of the structure's weight downward. and why the arch is closed on very windy days.designers need to be able to . the slight elongation is not only pretty. the architect who designed it was forced to stand underneath as the wooden supports were removed as a means of quality control. This makes the inverted catenary very stable. All that compression force acts along the curve and never at right angles to it. because they need to understand how forces flow in different directions. it is less so in the vertical direction. so Saarinen had to incorporate a lot of extra material in the so-called "cross-section" to get the arch to stand up and stay up. architects can rely on people like MIT's John Ochsendorf. whenever an arch was constructed. the less stable it becomes vertically. Legend has it that in ancient Rome. so but inverted will stand the rigid arch. Computer animation graphics designers use it to model fabrics. The higher the arch goes.inverting the shape into an arch reverses those into pure compression forces. The St. It was a terrific motivational tool: design it right. who has developed a new method for 3D modeling of the forces in a building design. and in an interactive format -.

Ochsendorf also reached beyond Hollywood and drew on the lessons of the past for his computer modeling technique. he's currently modeling the physical forces at work in the complex structures of historic Gothic cathedrals. tracing the shape with pegs and string. Ochsendorf's 3D models can determine where the lines of force naturally want to fall.I wanted to know more about the math. (Jen-Luc Piquant claims this makes perfect sense to her. sculptor and author of a mystery novel. Because it makes me look like I know what I'm talking about. math can be a big help in making sure .the hanging model -. Louis Gateway Arch is unique because it has an actual mathematical equation displayed at its base that describes -. not to mention a forthcoming book entitled Squaring the Circle: Geometry in Art and Architecture. a retired math professor from Vermont who is also a painter. Frank Gehry's trademark leaning columns are visually striking from an aesthetic standpoint. According to Calter. The virtual masses are connected by virtual springs that bounce around until they find an equilibrium to support the requisite loads.what else? -. arches. As every engineer knows all too well. so architects like Gehry can better align columns with those lines of force.01-1). roughly 40% more material is needed to make such structures stable.8(cosh0. but I suspect she's prevaricating just a little. which must be fabricated in a steelyard and then assembled onsite. Spain. but practically speaking. He used the model to design the Colonia Guelli Church between 1889 and 1908. completed in 1910. But modern construction materials include steel. All of this discussion proved fascinating.a catenary.used by the Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi to calculate structural balance for the arches incorporated into his building designs.) On hand to offer his expertise in this area was Paul Calter. but frankly -.and hell is freezing over as I type these words -. small stone arches were typically built around a curved wooden form. For instance. The eventual goal is to uncover more efficient ways of building modern structures. walls and vaults. Gaudi devised an elaborate system of threads that he used to represent columns.tweak the parameters and view the effect of doing so immediately. The St. I reproduce the relevant equation here: y = 68. specifically a similar design tool -. Ochsendorf is the first to apply this method to the study of architectural design. augmented with little sachets filled with lead shot to mimic the weight of small building components. around which the builder would lay stones or bricks. as well as the Casa Mila in Barcelona.

which . I enjoyed high school geometry. I would have enjoyed it even more if Michael Serra had been teaching the class. after x number of years. or elliptical. That's a pretty decent return. because it provides so many different contexts in which to discuss highly intimidating math and physics concepts. Among other pedagogical methods. the faster it grows. which describes. So if Jen-Luc Piquant took $500 of our hard-earned wages and invested that money at 6. Jen-Luc and I don't get a substantially greater return on our investment if the interest is compounded monthly instead of annually. and art -. I'll spare you most of the technical details of the St. Say you invest a certain number of dollars (P) at a fixed interest rate (n). Louis arch equation. the interest would compound for a grand total of y. anyway? -.50. things don't move into the truly mind-boggling realm as long as the interest is computed in discrete intervals. because they make my innumerate little head ache --something about giving the height y of any point on the arch at a given horizontal distance x? And what the heck is a cosh. It turns out that the greater the population. there are different equations for the various arch shapes: circular.5% interest for eight years. If I understood Calter correctly. between math. at the end of that period we would have $827. This is one of those strange convergences -. Equations for geometric figures like circles and arches weren't even available until Rene Descartes devised analytic geometry in the 17th century.in this case.that we here at Cocktail Party Physics love so much.everything is sized and shaped just right to achieve the critical balance of forces. The difference is something like $12.but even my befuddled brain was fascinated by a little-known connection. no wonder Jen-Luc handles the finances. It turns out that the equation is related to both exponential growth curves and exponential decay curves. In fact.33. Calter used the analogy of computing compound interest. Some of us need all the context we can get. parabolic. (Personally.) Not surprisingly. because the interest is only compounded once a year. thereby ensuring that millions of high schoolers would be required to take up compass and straightedge and learn about interior and exterior angle sum conjectures and the properties of trapezoids. physics. pointed. there's nothing jaw-droppingly exponential (yet) about this example. among other phenomena. engineering. architecture. Serra teaches his students how to build arches out of Chinese take-out cartons. population growth. Let's start with the exponential growth curve.

A certain well-known 19th century equation related the temperature of an object to the total amount of radiation it emits: if the temperature is doubled. at a negative interest rate. this would be akin to using Maxwell's wave equations for light versus the Planckian approach of quanta -. The equation held until the temperature rose into the ultraviolet range of the electromagnetic spectrum. This became known as the "ultraviolet catastrophe." which might strike nonscientists as over-reacting. In 1900. the emitted radiation will increase 16-fold.barely covers the cost of a movie and one-way Metro fare to the cinema. which amounts to losing money. . such that the value stabilizes (to something on the order of 2. so that we lose money instead of earning it. Calter likened it to how a cup of coffee cools in a cold room.a. It is the temperature difference between the two that drives the heat out of the coffee. so would the amount of emitted radiation.the resulting value first becomes very large.) The minus sign in the equation is the only thing that differentiates exponential growth from exponential decay. As the coffee cools. (Since Jen-Luc would never be so foolish. judging by how slowly the principal balance decreases. perhaps another possible example might be the interest incurred on a debt. Planck came up with the notion of discrete quanta. that temperature difference decreases.7183. Then it leveled off and began getting smaller and smaller again. then hits a threshold and stabilizes. Let's say that Jen-Luc invests our hard-earned wages unwisely. But if we compute the interest continuously rather than discretely -. per Calter). and then hits a sort of threshold. the second law of thermodynamics -. and the rate at which the temperature drops decreases along with it. the disaster led to a revolution: in an attempt to devise a theory to explain these experimental results. But any time theory doesn't agree with experiment. Alas. expecting -.which brings us to a bit of critical physics history.in physics terms.. our mortgage interest rate. And in this instance. inadvertently giving birth to the field of quantum mechanics. everything else remains the same. So the exponential decay curve contains the essence of entropy.that as the temperature rose. say. The value grows larger and larger. a. The reverse happens in exponential decay. that's not what happened. it constitutes a scientific disaster of sorts. German scientists conducted experiments to verify this by measuring how much radiation came off objects at various temperatures.k.per the equation -. So the rate of change in temperature is proportional to the temperature of the coffee.

arches weren't just structural. what Calter was saying is that in the classic catenary shape. perhaps because I struggle so much with the entropy of my own ignorance on a daily basis. (For anyone who cares to weigh in with corrections."Okay. Combined. they form a classic catenary which. while calculating the value continuously (like a wave) does. feel free to post your comments. I'm a little fuzzy on the connection myself. The above represents my own rambling thoughts as I try to grope my way towards a better understanding of the complex web of underlying interconnections at work in something as gloriously simple (on its surface) as an architectural arch. Stripped of all the technical jargon. We've lost that symbolic view to some extent. when inverted. "But what the hell does any of this have to do with catenaries and arches?" Well. you get something that looks like the figure at left. But even in the midst of pragmatism. but were also a spiritual device.) In medieval Europe. Even the underlying math and physics inspires. or further insights to help me combat this intellectual entropy. I am." Jen-Luc sighs impatiently. clarifications. embracing a far more pragmatic approach to architectural design. functionally innumerate. as I made clear in a prior post. while the rising portion of the curve exhibits the characteristics of exponential growth. the descending portion of the curve behaves like exponential decay. I think it has something to do with how calculating interest in discrete (quantum) intervals doesn't give us a (catastrophic?) exponential curve. I discovered that it's possible to derive inspiration from the arch. and not just from its aesthetics. in the case of entropy and black-body radiation. . intended to evoke a transcendental quality in the building. fine. in turn forms an arch. I'm particularly intrigued by the unexpected cameo appearance of the second law of thermodynamics. But Calter pointed out that if you put the exponential decay curve together with the exponential growth curve.

David López López (Catalonia). gathered a number of craftspeople to build two Guastavino structures. Here they are working on vault #1. arches. serpentine brick walls. All photos: Ken Follett unless otherwise noted The workshop leaders were Kent Diebolt (Vertical Access. in the late 19th century. Ottavino stone yard during the APTI conference in October 2013 in NYC. Marta Doménech Rodriguez (Catalonia). Queens. flying buttresses. bridges. Guastavino tile vaults. NY-based Boston Valley Terra Cotta. a team of craftspeople built two Guastavino vaults. APT (Association of Preservation Technology) and Vertical Access. At a two-day workshop held at A. aqueducts. fireplaces and in the far exotic end of the spectrum. Prior to and in coordination with the Association for Preservation Technology International conference in October 2013 in New York City. Sponsors included Orchard Park. One was an intersection of two barrel vaults and the other a barrel vault with intersecting lunettes (little moons). The building technique was brought to the United States by Rafael Guastavino from Catalonia. and Kevin Dalton (Vertical Access). The construction company that he formed. NYC). A most notable example of Guastavino tile is the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal in New York City. . corbels. along with his son to follow in his footsteps. which supplied the tile. Ottavino stone yard in Ozone Park. Spain. Benjamin Ibarra Sevilla (University of Texas. Berta de Miguel (Vertical Access). a two-day hands-on workshop at the A. carved stone. lintels. Mallory Taub (Arup. TheNational Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT) provided a grant. Ken and David Follett (Follett-PCLS). San Francisco). Guastavino tile is a masonry construction using thin tile built up in multiple-layers to form a composite of thin shells in various configurations of self-supporting masonry arches and vaults. By Ken Follett Under the heading of esoteric masonry. NY.Guastavino Thin-Tile Vaults A master craftsman takes us through the steps of building a Guastavino vault. there are a few items that stand out: columns. remained in the business of building Guastavino vaults up into the early 1960s. Austin).

and in the loose hand take a trowel. Bottom: Benjamin Ibarra Sevilla photographs vault #2 after completion. white plaster. Note the lunettes.Top: The team starts work on vault #2. which you then dip into wet. or at least without too much . a barrel vault with two lunettes. Here’s the process for building a Guastavino vault: o You take a tile in one hand. left or right as needed. Butter two edges of the tile and then briskly.

hesitation. . You get to know each other as you build together. and then you hold it there for a bit. tiles are being cut in halves. The tiles set over the last few minutes hang out into the air. You feel the weight of the tile and the plaster on your hands as it changes from wet and squishy to hard. slivers and triangles. you look around and talk to your neighbor. As you stand and hold the tile. Timing is important. On the wet saw. lift up and set the thin piece of baked-clay masonry sort-of flat up in the air and squeezed against the other tiles you have already set. that is. You gently wiggle and prod the tile with your fingers and your palms to where it needs to be. the materials can be impatient. As best as you are able. o Hold the thin tile there just long enough for it to stay in place as it reaches out along where you imagine and desire the vault surface to be. as this is a workshop for nonmasons to gain an inherent appreciation of the craftsmanship of this masonry technique.

There is no formwork. That is. a potter) and Bryson VanNostrand of VanNostrand Architects. work on vault #1. At this stage there is no support. as in a picture puzzle. You have to feel through the structure of the masonry as it sets and cures. Bottom: A father and son team. which. fits in and completes the whole reality of the vault.Top: Vault #1 nears completion. only the magic of adhesion of the plaster as it sets hold to suck in and grasp the tiles that freely reach out into space. . Mallory Taub is in the background with his camera. Brian VanNostrand (father.Photos: Berta de Miguel o Listen to the tap-tap of the trowel against the drum of the vault. until you get to the last tile.

Then everyone adjourns to an interior room for lunch and a talk about the history. a really big guy in an impish stir of impatience jumps up and runs from corner to corner across the top of one of the freshly built vaults. The last tiles are set in place.o Another layer of tile is offset over the first layer. with a whole lot less dramatic flair. Slick it with the mortar and plop it down. only two layers of tile. . wet. for this workshop. There are. But hold on! There are many mysteries when it comes to Guastavino vaults and one of the first is their remarkable strength and durability in form – when everyone has almost left the work area. and only minutes since the last tile has been set. squiggle it into place and move on. set in a cementitious mortar. mystery and tradition of this architectural form.

Princeton Architectural Press. They are hands-on consultants for architects. Here a member of the team holds the tile in place on vault #2. masonry. by John Ochsendorf (New York.follett. the last tile fits in and completes the vault.pcls@gmail. He currently resides in Brewster. The Art of Structural Tile. wood. the definitive book on the subject is Guastavino Vaulting. He can be reached atken.See Clem Labine’s review in the April 2011 issue of Traditional Building. NY. David Follett.com. 2010). and primarily works with his son-partner. TB Ken Follett has been involved with heritage masonry restoration for several decades. . Bottom: As in a picture puzzle. He is a founding member and was the first president of the Preservation Trades Network. metal or otherwise. engineers and conservators during the design phases in their investigation of historic structures. Photos: Berta de Miguel For more information.Top: Lisa Howe of Consigli works on the almost completed vault #2.