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Flying Buttress: A Classic Gothic Architectural Member

Gothic architecture boasts of highly elevated structures with pointed arches, ribbed ceilings, glass windows, and a lot of space for diffusion of light. But the most unique feature of the Gothic architecture is undoubtedly its flying buttresses. Read through this Buzzle article to know what a flying buttress is, and how it works.
Flying buttress
"The stars are the great Gothic churches: spires, naves, delicate flying buttresses, massive conventional buttresses, stained glass and grandeur, grandeur, grandeur."
― John Corry

What we know today as Gothic architecture, is known to have taken root in northern France, somewhere around 1140 CE. Gothic architecture developed as a style which, though similar to its predecessor, the Romanesque architecture in many respects, still had its own distinctive features. While the Romanesque focused mainly on robust structures, rooted mainly to the ground, the Gothic structures seemed to break all the earthly bondages, and soar high towards the sky. The Gothic edifices were unique, in that they were not only high-rising structures bearing pointed arches and ribbed ceilings, but they also had a set of their own distinguishing features, such as highly embellished, stained glass windows that added to the decorative ambiance of the structures, and of course, the external flying buttresses, which were added to strengthen the buildings.

What Is a Buttress?

Buttress

A buttress is an architectural member, placed against a wall for the purpose of support.

It is essentially a vertical (often triangular) structure that is often seen projecting from the wall of an edifice and, more often than not, seems like an extra protrusion, many a time, not in keeping with the harmony of the structure.

Nevertheless, a buttress serves as a functional architectural member, rather than a decorative one.

It supports the wall of the building from its exterior, and keeps it standing in its position, withstanding the various lateral forces acting upon the wall and pushing it outwards.

In a nutshell, a buttress is a structure that reinforces strength to the wall of an edifice, and enables it to stand steady, thus, increasing the lifespan of the building.

What Is a Flying Buttress?

Flying buttress

Typically a Gothic innovation, a flying buttress is one of the most common features of European churches and cathedrals.

A flying buttress differs from a simple buttress, in that it does not support the wall all the way to the ground level. Here, in fact, the actual buttress stands a little apart from the wall, which it is supposed to support.

This architectural member essentially consists of two principal components, viz. a huge, vertical block of masonry―the buttress, and a quadrant arch that connects the buttress to the wall―the flyer.

How Does a Flying Buttress Work?

First and foremost, a flying buttress is a form that is most suited for tall structures. As an edifice rises high, flying buttresses can be installed to support each and every vertical level.

In many European churches and cathedrals, we can actually see a series of flying buttresses, placed one below the other on consecutive descending levels. So, the topmost flying buttress supports the topmost wall from the exterior, down until the top of its lower level, and so on.

What the flying buttress does is that it reinforces the entire edifice level by level, rather than supporting only some of its portions.

The pressure that is exerted by the lateral forces on the wall is transmitted down across a free space that is created by the intersection of the buttress and the flyer. This process continues on every level of the building, and hence, flying buttresses serve as a mechanism that not only supports the structures, but also makes tall structures possible. One of the classic instances of this is the Bath Abbey in Bath, England. The flying buttresses of this edifice support the wall from the outer side, level by level, thus, allowing it more elevation.

Owing to the fact that flying buttresses free the walls from enormous loads that superstructures and ceilings put on them (especially on the topmost sections), it is possible to create more number of large voids in the walls in the form of windows, which would then be embellished with stained glass.

Thus, flying buttresses also make place for more decorative additions to the edifice, thus, making it aesthetically more appealing.

These days, a flying buttress is also considered to be a cheaper and feasible option, instead of dismantling and rebuilding the entire structure. For instance, in the village of Chaddesley Corbett in the Wyre Forest District of Worcestershire, England, one of the walls of the parish church was leaning outwards. Instead of dismantling the entire structure, which would have taken a lot of effort and money, a flying buttress was added, and the structure was restored successfully.

Gradually, with the development of Gothic architectural forms, the design of the flying buttress also underwent a considerable change. In some of the later Gothic buildings, we find flyers, often decorated with crockets (stylized carvings in the form of curled leaves, buds, and flowers). Moreover, in many instances, the buttresses also bore deep-set niches having figural sculptures. During the Renaissance era, thick wall architecture, like the one in the Romanesque style became popular again. Owing to this, the flying buttress seemed to lose its prominence, but only for a short while. In the 20th century, a Canadian architect, William P. Anderson, built a number of lighthouses across Canada. He used a series of flying buttresses to strengthen these structures, thus, proving once again that the member that was used in the 12th century architectural style is useful and feasible even for modern-day structures.
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Published: September 21, 2013
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