The fan vault at last

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edform Veteran Member • Posts: 5,629
The fan vault at last

A special day today. We took various members of our family to Bury St Edmunds for a walk around the Abbey Gardens and a look at the fan vault in the Millennium Tower of the cathedral which Rob, our son, designed. Because the area below the tower is one of the sacred spaces, with no public access, taking photographs of the entire ceiling is not normally possible, but I met with the verger today who allowed me to enter and lie on my back on the altar steps. These are some of the results...

The ceiling is 130 feet above the cathedral floor and is approximately 30 feet square - the inside of the cathedral is gloomy compared to the brilliant outdoor sunshine, hence the hotspots to the left of this image.

A closer view of the ceiling - the only wooden fan vault ever constructed. Careful examination of the image will reveal that one tiny panel of paint is the wrong colour in the simple repetitive sequence of blue, green, red, black, white and gold. This is a deliberate policy of the craftsmen from Hare and Humphreys who painted and gilded the ceiling in situ. Only God is perfect, they say, and so they always make one mistake when they paint a church structure

The reason the ceiling is wood, and not stone, is that the Millennium Tower is of modern steel framed construction clad in stone, and is simply not strong enough to support the 50 tonnes that a stone vault would have weighed. Even in oak, it weighs 6 tonnes.

The construction of the tower required a departure from the single-column-at-each-corner layout seen in period towers, where the fans of the vault curve out from the tops of the massive pillars. This tower has twin lightweight columns at each corner decorating what is actually a thin stone box that hides the steel pillars supporting the roof. So a hybrid design with twin fans was the result.

Twin springing fans at each corner. Note the steelwork visible in the gaps between the ceiling and the masonry. The fans sit on clever stainless steel trunnions that allow movement as the roof expands and contracts - it's timber and 30 feet across; large timber structures grow a surprising amount on damp days.

On display in the cloister is a full scale example of one of the scallop-framed panels that support the first row of rings in the centre of the ceiling - it is sandwiched between sheets of clear plastic so that oiks like me cannot touch it with our sweaty hands and mess it up, so there are visible reflections in this shot. We have a beautiful framed drawing of just such a panel by the artist-in-residence at the cathedral in the period when the ceiling was installed [Lilias August] - she drew lots of the structural elements of the ceiling. Our example will soon share its wall with prints of the shots I got today.

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Ed Form

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