Have you ever looked up at the ceiling of an apartment in Barcelona and wondered why they often have exposed wooden beams and an arch-shaped series of bricks? Well if you do, welcome to the club. The first time I came to my friend’s flat and looked at those curvy ceilings, my naive mind told me the place must be under some kind of renovation. But then I encountered the same scene in my first rented apartment, my second one, and mostly every flat I’ve been in so far.
What kind of construction is this? At the beginning I didn’t like it, so primitive, so uncompleted! But the more I explored this “Catalan style ceiling” the more I liked its unique character. So if you have the same wonder, why don’t you join me in discovering this piece of Catalan charm!
And by the way this design’s called Catalan vault or in Catalan “Volta Catalana”
Catalan vault is a building technique that lays plain bricks lengthwise over the parallel wooden beams or centering to form an arch-shaped ceiling. To create such a curvy ceiling with bricks and no framework needed, builders have to use a fast setting mortar to allow the brick to hold itself after being tapped into place.
Constructing vaults in brick was mastered by the Romans, who use arched structure to strengthen their buildings and constructions. This technique was then improved by Catalan people with layers of thinner, lighter bricks to create a ceiling not only light but also very strong. Up till now the technique has been widely used in buildings all over the region, for which it is named “Volta Catalana”. Other names for this technique are Catalan arch, Catalan turn or Timbrel vault.
Structural strength: Catalan vaults consist of a single or series of arches on the ceiling which create a shell structure. Thanks to that both the floor above and the ceiling itself will be able distribute gravity forces equally to the whole construction system thus bringing geometric flexibility and endurance of the structural floor surface.
I asked some of my Catalan friends and they said that a long time ago in the region people stored tons of agriculture products on the top floor. So it is very important to have a heavily reinforced structure.
Resource efficiency: Since this technique was popular among common people, the material had to be easy to make and affordable. Also, compared to making the same ceiling with a solid design, Catalan vaults costs less and do not require elaborate falsework. Yes that’s true they don’t need a framework to build. If you are skeptical about that, check this video
Catalan vaults vary depending on its purpose of use and the design of the whole construction.
Manhattan Municipal Building
Barcelona’s most famous architect Gaudi (see more about his masterpieces here) frequently used the traditional Catalan vault technique to suit the constructional form of his curvy design style. The most obvious example is The School of the Sagrada Familia
School of the Sagrada Familia
Calatan vaulted ceilings can also be seen outside of its original birthplace, in America thanks to Valencia architect Rafael Guastavino. Inspired by Catalan vault, he invented the Guastavino tile. The design was then used by Rafael himself and his son to build more than one thousand vaults in churches, cathedrals, chapels, and public buildings in America. Some of his most remarkable pieces are:
New York’s City Hall subway station
New York City ‘s Vanderbilt Hotel
National Museum of Natural History’s Baird auditorium
There are many other options you can find in our long term flats collection here
Tips for apartment hunting: if you fancy the traditional Catalan vaulted ceiling, our recommendation is to look at the old city area, Ciutat Vella with neighbourhoods Barceloneta, Borne, Gothic Quarter and Raval neighborhood. What about modern flats? Check the Diagonal Mar area. The neighborhood guide can be found in this link.