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Tabitha Sprau ’07 (Hunlock Creek, Pa.) has been putting her passion for architecture to good use this year.

Sprau attempted to pin down a timeline for when the flying buttresses were added to the French Romanesque Abbey Church of Cluny III. She presented her work at the 21st annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research held at Dominican University of California in San Rafael in April.

“The church was the result of an expanding monastery and was completed around 1125 and immediately following that, the nave collapsed,” Sprau explains. “By 1135, the nave was rebuilt. Since the church was constructed during the 1100s, there is little documentation.”

Through honors thesis research conducted under the guidance of Leonard Van Gulick, Baird Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Sprau probed the ongoing debate about when the flying buttresses were added to the church. While documentation from the 1600s confirms that Cluny III had flying buttresses, it is unclear if they were added in 1135 to correct the problem that caused the nave to collapse, or for aesthetic reasons.

A double major in A.B. engineering and art, Sprau modeled a portion of the nave with and without the flying buttresses using the computer program ANSYS. ANSYS allows material properties to be defined and appropriate forces applied and then calculates stress levels throughout the model.

“This research is significant because the flying buttresses played a large role in the transition from Romanesque to Gothic architecture,” Sprau explains. “Without the presence of flying buttresses, Gothic buildings would have lacked the extreme height; they also would not contain the same level of delicate details or the large clerestory windows. Since the height, elegant details, and clerestory windows are the most defining characteristics of Gothic architecture, without flying buttresses Gothic architecture would have been entirely different and quite possibly non-existent. If Cluny III had flying buttresses in 1135, it was the first structure ever to utilize this evolutionary architectural technique.”

Sprau’s honors thesis builds on previous work she did with Van Gulick through Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, in which students conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

Sprau and Van Gulick attempted to create a better understanding of ancient architecture by converting old pictures into computerized models. Their goal was to study how various architectural elements affected the buildings’ stability. Sprau’s responsibilities included converting slides and gathering information to catalog what is already known about French Romanesque architecture.

Last year, Sprau traveled to Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands with Van Gulick for the special Lafayette interim course Medieval Architecture in Northern Europe. Students studied medieval architecture on-site, exploring it as an expression of northern medieval European society and technology.

“I really couldn’t ask for a better person to work with,” says Sprau, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in architectural engineering. “While Dr. Van Gulick has a very strong, impressive background in mechanical engineering, he also shares my passion for architecture. He is very knowledgeable about French Romanesque architecture, and is always quick to answer any questions I have regarding the topic.”

Sprau also completed an EXCEL project with Alastair Noble, assistant professor of art. They prepared AutoCAD drawings of sculptures, constructed some pieces, and created an artist’s book.

She also completed a project through the Research Experience for Undergraduates program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. As a research assistant, Sprau obtained bone and ligament properties for a three-dimensional model of the lower extremities that graduate students were using to model injuries sustained in a vehicle collision. She used pig cadavers and performed compression and tensile tests.

Sprau is co-president of Leonardo Society. She is a member of Lafayette’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders, national engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi, national scientific research honor society Sigma Xi, and Field Hockey Club. She volunteers as an America Reads tutor through the Landis Community Outreach Center and is a calculus tutor. She recently received the Charles L. Best Memorial Prize in A.B. Engineering for students who best exemplify the ideals behind the Bachelor of Arts in Engineering degree and who have demonstrated leadership in the Bachelor of Arts in Engineering program.

Honors theses are among several major programs that have made Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. The College sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year; 21 students were accepted to present their research at this year’s conference.

Categorized in: Academic News