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2002-2003 National Endowment for the Arts Rome Prize in Historic Preservation

The American Academy in Rome

Project Description
Traditional Construction in Seismic Areas
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PROJECT: The project that I will undertake at the Academy is part of a longer term study of traditional construction in different parts of the world that I have been researching and writing about for a number of years. A number of regions in Italy are subject to earthquakes that have affected different vernacular building types. In addition, because of the nation's wealth of historic masonry buildings, engineering researchers in Italy have conducted some of the most advanced research on the behavior of masonry structures, making Italy an important resource for further research and documentation on this subject. While at the American Academy, I intend to further my research and writing on traditional structures in earthquake areas with research in two areas. The first is research on how past earthquakes have affected different types of vernacular buildings in Italy, and also historical records of how people in the past have responded to the earthquake threat through modifications of building systems. The second area of research is to explore in detail the scientific and engineering work that has been undertaken recently on the behavior of masonry walls and buildings. I also plan to work with ICCROM, which supports this project, to contribute to the development of their work on risk preparedness.

As yet, while I have been invited to present papers and lectures in Italy a number of times, I have not had the opportunity to research the traditional construction in Italy as part of the larger study that has included documentation in Turkey, the former Yugoslavia, Greece, Spain, India (including Kashmir), Nepal, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. The building tradition in Italy is generally more of a heavy load bearing unreinforced masonry than that found in Turkey, Greece, and other areas, but nonetheless it does have many early examples of effective earthquake resistive features, such as the iron wall anchors that proved effective in the Umbria-Marche Earthquake of 1997. It will be particularly interesting and relevant to research examples of timber wall reinforcement. The frequency of earthquakes that have occurred over the centuries in Italy make it particularly rich for the study of the adaptations that have been made to masonry construction to make it less vulnerable.

For the technical research, I am planning to work with Italian professors of masonry engineering whom I already know, including Prof. Georgio Croci, Univ. di Roma, an expert on restoration of earthquake damaged masonry buildings, and also Prof. Luigia Binda, Polytechnico di Milano, who has done extensive research on masonry at the experimental level. Also, the world's largest library on conservation at ICCROM is near the Academy. I plan to pursue a study that focuses on the effects of the relative strength of the mortar on restrained masonry in earthquakes. As I have reported in my papers on my observations in Turkey and in India, if the masonry is restrained (for example, contained within a frame or reinforced with tie beams), the use of weaker mortars may be advantageous in large earthquakes because of the energy dissipation effect, and the reduction of consequential damage to the masonry units themselves (which can destabilize the wall.) Weaker high-grade lime mortars have for long been promulgated as preferable in conservation work over stronger, but more rigid and brittle cement mortars. However, as yet they have not found their way into codes and general construction for earthquake areas. This work is intended to make a contribution to this subject.

BACKGROUND: This project grows out of a longstanding interest in the structure, as well as the architecture, of vernacular buildings - particularly vernacular buildings of timber and masonry combined. Since my discovery of a particular type of vernacular construction in Kashmir, India, I have pursued a comparative documentary study of vernacular buildings in earthquake areas. What makes this work different from conventional architectural history and from structural engineering research, is that the principal subject is the traditional structural systems - not just what they are and how they evolved, but how they have performed under one of the most severe natural threats to buildings that exists - earthquakes. Construction methods have largely switched from traditional materials to reinforced concrete within a space of the last half-century. As a result, in many countries of the world, vernacular buildings are rapidly disappearing. In many of these places, the older construction is looked at as primitive. In those areas subject to earthquakes, masonry is seen as a risk to be mitigated. Such mitigation often results in the gutting of historic structures, and their reconstruction with reinforced concrete frames clad with the historic stones. Research is rarely done on the performance of different types of traditional construction systems, and conservation efforts rarely focus on the cultural significance of the underlying structural systems of such buildings.

In November, 2000, a conference was held in Istanbul entitled "Earthquake-Safe: Lessons to be learned from Traditional Construction." The initiative for this conference came from David Michelmore, a British Conservator who explained that he was influenced to pursue the topic by my article 1989, "Bricks, Mortar, and Earthquakes, Historic Preservation vs. Earthquake Safety," published in the Sept 1989 APT Bulletin. This conference demonstrated for the first time that there is a widespread international interest in the topic. My Keynote Address at that Conference, “Intuition From The Past: What Can We Learn From Traditional Construction followed a survey after the great Kocaeli Earthquake of 1999 in Turkey, which identified the fact that traditional masonry structures survived among the now collapsed multi-story modern reinforced concrete structures. The comparison provided a chance to see how these buildings managed to survive the severe shaking, with a side-by-side comparison with the failed modern structures - many of which also used masonry, but in a different way. Out of this, for the first time it was possible to discover how certain elements of the traditional structural systems may even be adapted to improve modern construction in these same countries - thus also providing a chance to counter the conventional wisdom that archaic structural systems are necessarily unsafe.


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© Randolph Langenbach

M-Arch (Harvard), Dipl.Conservation (York, England)

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