How Antoni Gaudi designed complex structures based on Catenary Systems
Several years ago I had an opportunity to visit Barcelona, Spain with my family. This was my grandfather's home port while stationed with the 6th Fleet of the US Navy from 1956-1961. My father wanted to show us the places he had lived, where he attended school, and the architecture that left a permanent impression on him. He spoke often about architect Antoni Gaudí and how his structures were ahead of their time, and unlike anything he had ever seen.
It was the highlight of my trip visiting the Gaudi structures that had now been turned into museums. These attractions were scattered throughout the city of Barcelona (and some not too far away in less populated areas), but most were within easy traveling distance from each other. We'd have a Gaudi destination everyday, since there was so much to absorb with each one. I observed that Gaudi used mathematics extensively in his structures, and was inspired by shapes that often appear in nature, such as soap bubbles, and his surroundings such as the wavy rock drippings of Montserrat. One museum even showed the design concept of the Sagrada Família - a series of chains suspended over a mirror. Looking into the mirror, I was able to see the shape of the church. This was one example of how Gaudi found design inspiration.
Antoni Gaudí was born in Catalonia on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, June 25, 1852. At an early age, he showed interest in architecture, eventually studying in Barcelona. During the late 1870s, Barcelona was the most modern city in Spain and was the home to a large creative community. He spent a brief time in the military, but later returned to Barcelona to finish his studies, and graduated from the Provincial School of Architecture in 1878. Gaudi's signature style is based on organic structures and experimental forms. An example that demonstrates his novel approach to design are his early preparatory models. These are a series of three-dimensional models which use strings, weights, and gravity. To understand the complexity of his proposed designs, he would create inverted models using suspended cables. Gravity would determine the natural form of the hanging objects and he would take photos of these experiments, then invert them to understand the compressive forces at work.
This technique allowed Gaudi to design complex structures based on Catenary systems. Gaudi fabricated many breathtaking structures with pieces of string that architects would have a hard time reproducing using today's advanced technology. He fabricated scaled models of his design ideas by developing forms through a weighted string form-finding method. Gaudi used catenary arches in many of his projects including La Sagrada Família and Casa Milà. The advantage of the catenary arch is that it can be constructed from very light materials while still being able to support heavy weight.
For instance, if I hold a piece of rope between my hands, it...