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Tue, Feb. 6th, 2007, 12:12 pm
A different kind of string theory: Antoni Gaudi



 
This cathedral owes its beauty to these little strings and weights. Here comes another learning blog, kids.

Someone recently showed me a picture he took in Barcelona of a this enormous cathedral pictured above that's under construction. He explained "This is the famous Gaudi one," and wondered if I was familiar with that architect. I asked him, "Isn't that the guy who used string in his architecture design, by studying the angles in which it fell?" but my friend wasn't sure and had never heard of that story. I was pretty sure that it was the Spanish designer Antoni Gaudi who devised that method, but I couldn't remember for sure, so I looked it up just now. He was such a fascinating architect who created such beautiful designs that I thought, "Blog topic!"

Gaudi thought classes at Barcelona's Escola Tècnica Superior d'Arquitectura lacked creativity and wasn't afraid to insult the faculty by saying so. After all, he was probably light years beyond their collective skills. In turn, they were on the fence about whether to pass him, but they finally decided to do so. At his graduation in 1878, the director announced, “Gentlemen, we are here today either in the presence of a genius or a madman.” Here is a pic taken the year he graduated:



Gaudi devoted ten years of his life to a "hanging chain" model made of weights on strings that would serve as an upside down version of the arched forms he sought. He traced the outline of the church he was designing on a wooden board (1:10 scale), which he then placed on the ceiling of a small house next to the work site. He hung cords from the points where columns were to be placed. Next he hung small sacks filled with pellets, weighing one ten-thousandth part of the weight the arches would have to support, from each catenaric arch formed by the cords. Here's a drawing he did:

(courtesy of the Gaudi Club)

He photographed the resulting model from various angles, and the exact shape of the church's structure was obtained by turning them upside-down. The weights would reflect the mass of the building when it was completed. And those strings would take a certain shape or form, hanging in "pure tension." Then Gaudi would carefully measure it and photograph it from various angles and turn the photo upside down . . .



so that he could find exactly where the column should go so that the finished building would act in pure compression. This was extremely time consuming and labor intensive. Here is his original model, on display in Barcelona:



So influential was Gaudi's discovery that MIT offered a workshop based on his methods.

Last year, researchers at MIT developed a new virtual method that creates models of 3-D structures. Designers can interact with it by cutting virtual strings and adding virtual weights to see how their building changes form. They can use this program to invent really new shapes for buildings in the future where the form of the building would respond to the loads that are acting on it. You can actually play with the program here. It's very cool and a great at-work time waster that makes it look like you're working on something very important.

From this . . .

to this.

Here are some photos of Gaudi's masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, which will be finished anywhere from thirty to sixty years from now, due to all the intricacies he designed.