OCEAN Design Research Association

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Nested Catenaries

Nested Catenaries - 2010 - ongoing

Nested Catenaries is an ongoing research project in the performance-oriented design research area that investigates the structural and multi-functional capacity of masonry catenary arches and vaults.


Research Team

Phase 01

Defne Sunguroğlu Hensel, Doctoral Research Fellow, AHO, Oslo

Øyvind Buset, Master Mason, Oslo

Phase 02

Defne Sunguroğlu Hensel, Doctoral Research Fellow, AHO, Oslo

Guillem Baraut Bover, Civil and Structural Engineer, BOMAINPASA, Barcelona

Øyvind Buset, Master Mason, Oslo


Phase 01

OCEAN NestedCatenaries_Phase01_03Photography: Andre Severin Johansen, 2010

In autumn 2010, a series of events at AHO Oslo School of Architecture and Design focused on the topic of structural masonry exemplified by the innovative works of Eladio Dieste. (1) As part of these events the brick construction experiments workshop commenced with a line of inquiry based on the basic principles of the catenary arch derived through a form-finding method first utilized three dimensionally by Antoní Gaudi, the hanging chain model.

OCEAN NestedCatenaries_Phase01_01

The brick construction experiments aimed at exploring some of the heretofore unexplored potentials of a catenary arch arrangements, focusing on the spatially organized network of interacting Catenaries. The aim was to accomplish an undulating wall made from nested catenaries. This research challenge formed the basis of a ten days intense brick construction experiments workshop run together with the master mason Øyvind Buset and nineteen master level students from the AHO Auxiliary Architectures Studio. Methodologically the research employed a combination of physical form-finding experiments with hanging chains, digital parametric and associative modelling, and 1:1 scale tests.

The form-finding team developed complex arrangements of hanging chain models in an iterative manner investigating the various configurations that the chain arrangements developed under their own self-weight. The experiments were carried out across different scales ranging from 1:1, 1:4 to 1:10 studying analogously the underlying geometric principles, the parametric definition and behaviour starting from a single chain towards more complex arrangement of chains that are point loaded as a result of a nested assembly.

The computation team worked on several tasks simultaneously. One area of investigation focused on the digital registration of the results gained from the physical form-finding experiments, using a mechanical Digitizer and employing photometric readings to extract empirical information. Two methods for computing nested chain behaviour were developed and investigated in parallel, which constitute [i] the development of an associative parametric set-up [ii] the implementation of the

Kangaroo physics engine to the Rhino Grasshopper set-up. (2) The findings from both the chain models and the 1:1 partial physical tests informed the development of the digital models with the aim to develop the design and construction drawings for the construction of the full-scale prototype.

The construction team built different configurations of catenary arrangements, conducted load tests and investigated different brick laying strategies with focus on the ‘key stones’ at the arch intersections, and developed practical information for carrying out the construction process. The construction of the full-scale prototype was conducted in house with low-tech tools available at the AHO workshop. The final prototype consisted of 950 bricks and covered a floor area of approx. 8000 x 2000 mm reaching 2500 mm high at its highest point.

(1) The Eladio Dieste - Advancing Architecture Through Material Systems Innovation Exhibition and Symposium was organized by Michael Hensel, Defne Sunguroğlu Hensel and Birger Sevaldson and sponsored by Byggutengrenser.no, Wienerberger, Weber and Einar Stange at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, AHO during 08-22 October 2010.

(2) Grasshopper is a parametric modelling plug-in for Rhino, which is a NURBS-based 3-D modelling software. The physics engine Kangaroo for Grasshopper embeds relaxation script for digitally simulating the physics behind the hanging chain. Currently under development by Daniel Piker.


Project Leaders Phase 01:

Defne Sunguroğlu Hensel and Øyvind Buset, Master Mason

Project Team Phase 01:

Auxiliary Architectures Studio 2010 @ AHO: Linda Blaasvaer, Mattis Fosse, Marine Giller, Esa Hotanen, Torstein Hågensen-Drønen, Johnbosco Mulwana, Emanuel Ssinabulya, Simen C Lennertzen, Daniela Puga, Joakim Hoen, Rikard Jaucis, Eva Johansson, John Pantzar, Oda Forstrøm, Maximilian Hartinger, Fabian Onneken, Leonard Steidle, Nikolaos Magouliotis, Andre Severin Johansen

Sponsors Phase 01:

Byggutengrenser, Wienerberger, Weber and Einar Stange

Special thanks to:

Prof. Dr. Michael U. Hensel, Prof. Dr. Birger R. Sevaldson, Prof. Dr. Remo Pedreschi, Prof. Dr.-Ing. Christoph Gengnagel, Dr. Jane Burry, Dr. Chris Williams, Daniel Davis, Daniel Piker, AHO and our sponsors


Phase 02 - Oslo

OCEAN NestedCatenaries_Phase02a_04Photography: Defne Sunguroğlu Hensel, 2012

Phase two of this research project focused on the spatial and structural potentials of designing and constructing with catenaries based on the principles and strategies of nesting. More specifically this involved the design and construction of a thin spatial shell with a thickness of one brick laid on face, which is able to resist both uniform and non-uniform vertical and horizontal loads. The results, thus far, exemplify the structural use of brick in the field of structural masonry and the research thus far addressed the potential of the catenary.

The second phase of this research has been concluded with two full-scale constructions. The first one was a test construction in preparation for the second construction in Chile built from April to May 2012. The main purpose was to investigate the principle of nesting catenary shells and local shape control to improve overall structural performance as well as the spatial conditions created. The inquiry included questions related to the design of tolerances, as well as the economic production of formwork by low-tech means that can easily be assembled and removed. The brick laying strategies and pattern, especially at the intersections where shells meet, were critical to these studies.

The design of a nested catenaries cavity wall involved the use of three catenary shells with two base shells, whose shape could be articulated individually, while remaining in interaction with the shell above, which formed a transition from a concave to convex cross-section. For the base shells, the synclastic and anticlastic surface geometries were chosen, to test on the one hand their implication to construction, in building double-curved shells, and on the other to analyze the different structural failure modes that the two would produce under multiple loads. The final structure is a cavity wall, produced by spatially organized catenary shells with a thickness of 65mm. It covers a floor area of 4450x1800 with a height of 2500mm. The average depth of the shell is 1200, height is 1500 (bottom) and 900 (top shell), while the width ranges approximately from 1600 to 2500 mm.

OCEAN NestedCatenaries_Phase02a_03

Project Phase 02 – Oslo:

Defne Sunguroğlu Hensel and Øyvind Buset, Master Mason

Sponsors Phase 02 – Oslo:

Wienerberger and Einar Stange


Phase 02 – Open City, Ritoque, Chile

OCEAN NestedCatenaries_Phase02b_03Photography: Sasha Sinkovich, 2012

While the first case study of phase two was a laboratory experiment, the latter was conducted as a field experiment subjected to real life conditions. This project was built as an extension to the cemetery of the Open City in Ritoque, Chile. Chile is an ideal context to test the shell’s resistance to seismic impact.

The project constitutes a masonry shell of interconnected sub-shells that are nested to form a vault between two cavity walls. It also involved a strategy of branching as a principle to span and to create nested spaces. The design was limited to twelve sub-shells in creating the overall shell articulating a volume of 162m³, each with synclastic surface geometry to retain the complexity of construction. The structural independence from symmetry and freedom from repetition due to the construction method allowed for a non-uniform spatial organization. The final structure is a nested catenaries shell, produced by spatially organized sub-shells with a thickness of 55mm. The span reaches to 7m in both directions with reaching a height of 3.3m. A total of 1000 bricks were used, which makes an overall weight of approx. 2800 kg including mortar. Thus far, it has survived several earthquakes of a magnitude above 6 on the Richter scale.

The Chilean Embassy in Norway endorsed phase 02 of the Nested Catenaries project.

OCEAN NestedCatenaries_Phase02b_04Photography: Sasha Sinkovich, 2012

Project Leaders Phase 02 – Open City:

Defne Sunguroğlu Hensel and Øyvind Buset, Master Mason

Project Supervision Phase 02 – Open City:

Defne Sunguroğlu Hensel, Øyvind Buset, Prof. Dr. David Jolly Monge, Assistant Professor Oscar Andrade

Structural Engineering Phase 02 – Open City:

Guillem Baraut Bover, BOMA, OCEAN Design Research Association

Project Team Phase 02 – Open City:

Carolina Almarza, Fernando Briones, Randi Fjeldtvedt, Javiera Galeas, Camila Gonzales, Michael Hensel, Astrid Christine Johnsen, Carla Landaeta Jeria, Elisabetha Maniga, Diego Millan, Paula Minte, Macarena Morales, Navid Navid, Fabian Olivares, Matias Penrroz, Soledad Prado, Carlos Trancoso 

Financed by:

RCAT – Research Centre for Architecture and Tectonics, AHO Oslo School of Architecture and Design



Publications - Phase 01

Hensel, M. (2012). ‘The Research Centre for Architecture and Tectonics – Implementing Research towards Performance-oriented Architecture’. In: Hensel, M. ed. Design Innovation for the Built Environment – Research by Design and the Renovation of Practice. London: Routledge: 145-160.

Hensel, M. (2012). ‘Confronting the Crisis of Architectural Education’. Nordic Journal of Architecture 1 (2): 85-89.

Helsing-Almaas, I. (2010). ‘Komplekse Tegleksperimenter på AHO’. Arkitektur N 92(8): 73.

Sunguroğlu Hensel D. (2011). ‘Kompleks Zincir Egrisi Birlesimleri - Nested Catenaries’. Yapi 356 July 2011: 90-93.

Publications - Phase 02

Sunguroğlu Hensel, D. and Buset, Ø. (2012). ‘Nye Murkonstrksjoner – Experimenter I tegl’. Mur + Betong 2: 32-35.

Symposia and Conference Papers

Sunguroğlu Hensel, D. and Baraut Bover, G. (2011). 'Nested Catenaries'. Sverre Fehn Symposium 2011: Research Frameworks, Areas and Trajectories in Architecture - Architect and Engineer Session. AHO Oslo School of Architecture and Design, Oslo, Norway. 27-28 October 2011.

Sunguroğlu Hensel, D. (2011). 'Complex Brick Assemblies and Nested Catenaries'. RCAT - Research Center for Architecture and Tectonics Inauguration Symposium. AHO Oslo School of Architecture and Design, Oslo, Norway. 29 April 2011.

Sunguroğlu Hensel, D. (2010). 'Nested Catenaries Phase 1'. Eladio Dieste Symposium 2010 - Advancing Architecture through Material System Innovation. AHO Oslo School of Architecture and Design, Oslo, Norway. 08 Octoberl 2011.