Opus Spicatum: A History of Herringbone by Will Belcher

Herringbone Skeleton Sketch © Will Belcher

Herringbone Skeleton Sketch © Will Belcher

For as long as I can remember, I have been building things. When I was young, my brothers and I would create endless cities of wooden blocks that my grandfather would make for us in his wood shop. From building these scale-less cities, I learned that the ultimate height of towers and their ability to withstand the elements greatly depended upon how the structures were built, such as a sound base and good quality interlocking joints between the blocks. What I didn’t know was that these experiences would launch me into extensive studies of material, pattern and built environment.

From around 500 B.C. onward, the Roman Empire developed an expansive road system called Viae Publicae. This arterial transportation system allowed for accelerated communication and rapid transport of people and materials throughout the empire. The simple set of rules for roadway construction, prescribed by Vitruvius’ road bed section, evolved into tessellated interlocking paver systems firmly supported at the edges by curb stones and a substantial base of crushed stone that stretched 50,000 miles. Despite advancements in technology and construction, these basic principles of paving systems remain intact to this day. At OLIN, we still use the same system of interlocking paver systems laid firmly on a well compacted base.

Herringbone was developed during the Roman Empire. They called it Opus spicatum, or “spiked work.” The fairly simple pattern is distinguished from a plain chevron pattern by a break at the arris, or point of reversal, creating an intensely strong geometric matrix of interlocking units. When the chevrons are pointed in the direction of traffic the pattern becomes extremely strong under compression as the chevrons are able to spread the load over twice as many bricks. This inherent ability to absorb compression of movement makes it a remarkably resilient paving pattern. This pattern of interwoven chevrons can be traced back to the Egyptian textiles and metalwork. We find the pattern in the textiles and jewelry of ancient Egyptian kings. In English, we call the geometric pattern herringbone, because it resembles the skeleton of the Atlantic herring.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, many of the fundamental construction techniques of classical antiquity were lost and forgotten. Herringbone resurfaced again during the Renaissance in Europe. At this point the herringbone bond was taken from the horizontality of landscape and began to find itself in the motifs of architecture. The pattern became the fundamental backbone of Brunelleschi’s great Duomo in Florence. By incorporating the interlocking pattern into the structure of the dome, much like keystones in an arch, Brunelleschi disposed of the need for a central support system. The interlocking system gave the dome its unique shape and allowed it to defy the rule of quinto acuto, or “acute fifth,” a mathematical concept that had previously been used to defined the curvature of architectural domes.

We can learn from the history of herringbone as it teaches us that the most effective design solutions to complex design obstacles often arise from the lessons learned from those before us. I believe that designers must be committed to understanding material and pattern and their application in the built environment. This understanding fuels the inherent contextual and vernacular design solutions that are associated with the complex systems in which we work. Additionally, patterns and material are symbolic, like flags, and have the potential to evoke a sense of place.

 

Patsouras Transit Plaza, Los Angeles, CA (Bottom Image © David Graham)

In downtown Los Angeles, OLIN created a multi-modal transportation hub at Union Station tied to the history of the native people through the use of multicolored polychrome bricks. The plaza is orchestrated in a durable herringbone that is inspired by the colors and patterns that adorn the baskets of the Chumash Indian tribe­­­­­­­­­­­­­­. The Chumash created arguably the most refined and sophisticated exquisite baskets, some in herringbone pattern, found in the world. These baskets were hand woven out of twigs, bark and roots of local plants in very tight patterns that make for sound structures.

 

Simon and Helen Director Park, Portland, OR (Bottom Image © Eckert & Eckert)

More recently, OLIN completed Simon and Helen Director Park in Portland, which incorporates a modified elongated herringbone pattern with two unique surface finishes in beautiful blonde granite. The paving, like a fine carpet, stretches from building face to building face, providing a continuous fabric that stitches together the built environment.

I believe as designers we must understand the importance of place and the value of building on time tested techniques—as they are often the most logical solutions. Much like the great Egyptians and Romans, this knowledge can minimize entropy and ensure our built environments last for generations to come.

Comments
  1. Chris de Ocejo says:

    Will,

    I’m not a designer, architect, engineer or even a scientist, but folks with an interest in the herringbone pattern as applied to architecture should watch the recent PBS Nova episode on the construction of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy – specifically the enormous dome – which arguably marks the beginning of the European Renaissance.

    The dome – about 150′ in diameter, was built freestanding in a mere 16 years, in the 1400s. He was a goldsmith by trade, with no architectural experience, and yet convinced the city fathers who would have to put up the money, and the builders who would have to put up their lives, that he could perform the feat – bigger even than the Romans, largest civilization in the Eurafrican world, had built.

    The architect claimed inspiration from Roman designs, and is said to have demonstrated the principle by taking an egg and smacking it against a table so that it could stand on end on a flat surface. To accomplish this, he used a 3D herringbone pattern to direct the weight safely downward.

    This got me thinking. Rome was (a) an ancient civilization, and (b) one which lived in a tectonically-active zone- like the West Coast of America now.

    And isn’t the herringbone design of the herring – the fish – designed to redirect the drag coefficient from the central point (nose) of the fish along the side? In other words, aren’t cartilaginous fish designed by evolution to most efficiently designed to ‘slip’ through the water while retaining structural integrity.

    It’s just my intuition, but could be rather easily proven/disproven by scientific testing, that the herringbone cobblework of Roman roads made them more resistant to 2-dimensional shifting such as might occur in a seismic event. In other words, Roman roads were designed to remain functional even after a seismic event.

    But the herringbone design, crucially, allows the structure to flex and bend along a 2D plane while remaining mostly structurally sound because of the displacement of lateral force.

    I was looking at Roman-era structures which might have inspired the architect, and I believe I have his muse: the Pantheon in Rome. Although made of poured concrete, it features rectangular panels set in the dome of decreasing area along the z-axis. The ‘herringbone’ in 3D is amply obvious, and one of the most important and fascinating engineering marvels in the world.

  2. ann paquette says:

    Saying the Romans invented herringbone pattern confuses me. In “Technology of the Ancient World”, by Henry Hodges, he says that ancient brick makers, long before Rome, saw that their bricks would end up bent after being fired so they devised a way to make one end flat and make a herringbone pattern from those bricks. Perhaps the Romans had a new use?

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