In Europe, Students Research Old London, Roman Concrete Mysteries

Office of CommunicationsAcademics, College of Professional Schools

Using summer research grants to study primary sources, undergraduates Shaili Patel and Taylor Davidson analyzed early London architecture and the stuff that made Roman buildings endure.
By Shaili Patel and Taylor Davidson

October 22, 2014

This summer, two Norwich University architecture students researched intriguing historic puzzles in London and Italy.

Undergraduate architecture and history major Shaili Patel, a rising junior, researched the influence of Enlightenment philosophies on London city planning through the work of Christopher Wren and John Gwynn, luminaries of 17th and 18th century architecture.

Patel visited the English capital to study and analyze primary sources, most of which were original engravings of city maps and plans designed by Wren and Gwynn. At the same time, she experienced modern London; in many ways the opposite of the rational London proposed by the gentleman architects she studied.

Her research culminated in an in-depth paper with visual analysis of the plans and texts she studied. Patel plans to submit her paper for presentation at the Phi Alpha Theta (the national history honor society) undergraduate research conference.

“Wren presented a visual theory with his plans, while Gwynn took the theory and made it a practical application of the rationalism of the Enlightenment that is evident in the London of today,” Patel says. Consequently, more of Gwynn’s ideas are present in present-day London.

Roman Concrete

While Roman ruins are also present in London, undergraduate architecture student and rising junior Taylor Davidson traveled to Italy this summer to research the applications of Roman concrete and related designs as part of a Norwich University Summer Research Fellowship.

His research, entitled “Concrete: Looking at the Old to Improve the New,” looks for practical techniques that can be taken from Imperial Roman concrete and applied to modern construction.

“The longevity of these structures, such as the Pantheon and Coliseum in Rome, stand as a testament to the success of Imperial Rome’s concrete and design,” Davidson says.

“If we can apply some of the techniques that proved successful in Rome, perhaps we can increase the structural longevity of our own concrete, thereby reducing costs and CO2 emissions … from concrete production.”

Davidson visited Rome and Pompeii to examine remaining examples of Roman concrete. He spent weeks documenting and examining structures to extrapolate techniques and material use that contributed to the longevity of the structures.

“Rome is a treasure of architectural wealth. The fact that these buildings, some of which are more than 2,000 years old, remain standing provides us with the richest source for examining and understanding the past,” Davidson said.

Davidson documented sites using notes, detailed drawings and detailed photographs of each site he visited, all of which contribute to his culminating research paper.
These ancient Roman architectural structures preserve a record of invaluable information about the civilization from which they arose.

Davidson hopes to answer why modern structures have such a comparatively short lifespan, a problem that faces contemporary architects, builders and society overall.
Deducing the key techniques and designs from ancient Roman can inform the construction of the future, he says. It may be possible to create structures that endure beyond what we now consider the acceptable lifespan of a building.