John Ochsendorf from MIT discussed thin shell vaults, compressive structures, Peruvian tensile bridges, and other aspects of his research as our second lecturer for the Cornell in Rome Series. Now appointed to a 3-year term as director of the American Academy of Rome, Oschsendorf is currently investigating masonry mechanics and the structural soundness of historic monuments.
Starting as an engineering major at Cornell, John set out to investigate the load bearing potentials of a 600 year old system of weaving bridges in Peru. He had turned this investigation into his thesis, and visited the village to observe the three day ceremony of weaving the bridge.
He brought up an interesting point that isn’t accounted for in the structural equations used to determine a system’s integrity and lifespan – the point being that the reason this rope bridge has lasted for such a long time is because it is re-weaved each year. Sociology, tradition, culture, and community contribute to public infrastructure, and can maintain it, rebuild it, and preserve it way beyond its material’s capabilities. In regards to long-standing compressive structures such as baroque and renaissance churches, he brought to our attention the preservation efforts of the late 20th century- which includes attempting to reinforce these structures with concrete and steel – which have now not only burdened these structures with immense and unpredicted loads upon original design , but also the steel is now corroding and harming the materials of these monuments.
Moving forward: can we transition into more community oriented designs and efforts that allow for less expensive and corrosive materials in the future or is that too impossible a task for large urban cities? How can a respect for materiality imbue itself within the design process?