Laying Up Brick Bovedas
Inwardly leaning arches defy gravity.
Synopsis: An architect details the construction of a boveda, a dome of brick that is laid up without the help of supporting forms. Here’s a hint: it takes special brick and a highly skilled mason with a hard-won family construction secret.
It’s not often that an architect gets a chance to incorporate traditional-masonry domes, called bovedas, into a house, but that opportunity came to me. My clients owned a site on the north slope of a 5,000-ft. mountain in hot, semi-arid southwestern Texas, 80 miles north of Big Bend National Park. They wanted a house incorporating traditional elements of Spanish architecture, so the final design centered around an open courtyard. Square in plan, each corner of the house was topped by a boveda.
A boveda is a dome built without the aid of formwork. Made of brick or other masonry material, bovedas originated in Egypt and the Middle East, where ingenuity made up for a lack of trees to provide lumber for roof supports. During the Renaissance, masonry domes took on an unprecedented popularity and were standard fare for most religious buildings in Italy and Spain. And when the Spanish conquered the Americas, missionaries converted the natives first to Catholicism and then to Spanish masonry techniques.
Many churches were built with bovedas, as were granaries, kiosks and water cisterns. Far from dying out when the Spanish left, however, the rich tradition of masonry bovedas survives to this day, primarily via a handful of skilled masons from the eastern part of the state of Jalisco, Mexico. The house built for my clients called for considerable skill on the part of the builders, but the star of the show was the bovedero, Sr. Don Alfredo Avila Almaguer, son of Don Mateo Avila.
A bovedero is a mason who specializes in the making of bovedas. The traditional techniques of making bovedas were rediscovered in Lagos de Moreno, Jalisco, Mexico, by Don Alfredo’s grandfather many years ago. As Don Alfredo recounts the story, his grandfather and a few other masons in Lagos were hired to remodel an old residence. While doing the work, they stumbled upon an abandoned cistern built in the boveda tradition. Intrigued, Don Alfredo’s grandfather and his companions set out to try and recreate the boveda process. Two generations later, the building of bovedas has been returned to the level of virtuosity prevalent during colonial Mexico, and Lagos de Moreno has also become the boveda capital of the country.
The basic brick
The materials and tools needed for boveda-making are few. The brick, known in Jalisco as ladrillo de cuna or wedge brick, is a lightweight and relatively soft brick made from the clay soils around Lagos de Moreno. Mixed with water, the soil turns to mud and is poured into wooden molds, each containing four bricks. When released from the molds, the partially dry bricks are left to dry completely in the sun. Two good sunny days are sufficient for drying the bricks to a whitish appearance, whereupon they are fired in a wood-fueled oven for one day and one night.
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