Complex Simplicity: Architecture and Structure in the work of Alfonso Ramirez

I propose to research and write about Mexican architect Alfonso Ramirez. CRASSH Early Career Fellowship support during Michaelmas 2010 would allow me to develop this new direction of research and bring greater understanding of Ramirez’s work to the architectural community through writing, presentations, and a public workshop in Cambridge.

Alfonso Ramirez, who is in his seventies, designs and builds with the vernacular tradition of “leaning brick” vaults. These structures are built without supporting formwork and, when designed and built by skilled hands, are spaces of great beauty. Ramirez’s construction of space through structure and craft creates buildings that share an engagement with the process of building and the artisan’s talent. The underlying technique is surprisingly simple, but when used by master designer and mason the result is remarkably complex.

The work is important because in addition to being elegant, the structures are efficient in resource use and in construction. Their thermal mass can be advantageous for low-energy buildings. Little-known outside a circle of structural masonry specialists, Ramirez’s work and techniques have a wider relevance to architecture around the world.

My primary area of research is the history, construction and contemporary application of tile vaulting, a thin-shell masonry technique from Spain. I design and build masonry vaults without formwork, but using a different technique from that of Ramirez. I teach masons how to build using methods particular to the buildings I've designed, which allows me to understand and explain the relationship Ramirez develops with the people who construct his buildings.

I'm trained as an architect, but I also work as an engineer, so I have a strong understanding of both disciplines. Ramirez's work fits neatly in between. This is a remarkable opportunity to work with a master builder and bring greater scholarly focus to his work. As an engineer, I can explain and evaluate his structural design and construction methods. As an architect, I can place the buildings in the wider cultural and historical context of vaulting traditions around the world.

During a sabbatical in Easter 2010 I will travel to Mexico to work with Ramirez and research historic and contemporary vaulting. (I will spend the first month improving my Spanish.) During the following term I plan to produce a significant publication on Alfonso Ramirez, as well as a workshop in Cambridge exploring and building with the “leaning brick” technique. The Mexican Embassy in London is currently raising funds (at my request) to bring Ramirez to the UK in Autumn 2010.

I have a background in geology, archaeology, architecture and engineering, which gives me a broad base to pursue the historical, cultural, and technical research. Through my own interdisciplinary teaching, research and practice I am in a strong position to complete this novel research and make a significant contribution to the field.


Dr Michael Ramage (Architecture, Sidney Sussex) is an Early Career Fellow at CRASSH, Michaelmas 2010.


Tel: +44 1223 766886