What Is a Flying Buttress?
The name “buttress” in architecture is given to a mass of masonry which stands out from the face of a wall, either to strengthen that wall or to resist the thrust from an arch or a roof. The flying buttress (arc-boutant, arch buttress) is a specific form of buttress composed of an arched structure that extends from the upper portion of a wall to a pier of great mass, in order to convey to the ground the lateral forces that push a wall outwards, which are forces that arise from vaulted ceilings of stone and from wind-loading on roofs.
The defining, functional characteristic of a flying buttress is that it is not in contact with the wall it supports, like a traditional buttress, and so transmits the lateral forces across the span of intervening space between the wall and the pier. To provide lateral support, flying-buttress systems are composed of two parts: (i) a massive pier, a vertical block of masonry situated away from the building wall, and (ii) an arch that bridges the span between the pier and the wall — either a segmental arch or a quadrant arch — the flyer of the flying buttress.
The flying buttress was a Gothic innovation and is a kind of half-arch or half-bridge of masonry spanning the space from the buttress proper to the neighboring wall. Buttressing began in the great buildings of the later Roman Empire but it was not until the Romanesque period that really large outside buttresses began to appear. As the naves of churches became roofed with ribbed vaults, a tremendous number of thrusts were concentrated into each bay and the flying buttress was evolved to counter them.
Where the nave wall was of great height, as at Beauvais Cathedral, in France, two, or even three half-arches—one over the other—formed the flying buttress. By the 15th Century, few large buildings were without flying buttresses, which were often pierced and richly traceried. Many Cathedrals in England, such as Exeter, Salisbury, Winchester and Sherborne Abbey in Dorset, show magnificent examples of flying buttresses as well as the richly decorated buttress pinnacles which often accompany them.
Ancient examples of the flying buttress can be found on the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna and on the Rotunda of Galerius in Thessaloniki. The architectural-element precursors of the medieval flying buttress derive from Byzantine architecture and Romanesque architecture, in the design of churches, such as Durham Cathedral, where arches transmit the lateral thrust of the stone vault over the aisles; the arches were hidden under the gallery roof, and transmitted the lateral forces to the massive, outer walls.
By the decade of 1160, architects in the Île-de-France region employed similar lateral-support systems that featured longer arches of finer design, which run from the outer surface of the clerestory wall, over the roof of the side aisles (hence are visible from the outside) to meet a heavy, vertical buttress rising above the top of the outer wall. The advantage of such lateral-support systems is that the outer walls do not have to be massive and heavy in order to resist the lateral-force thrusts of the vault. Instead, the wall surface could be reduced (allowing for larger windows, glazed with stained glass), because the vertical mass is concentrated onto external buttresses.
The design of early flying buttresses tended to be heavier than required for the static loads to be borne, e.g. the Chartres Cathedral (ca. 1210), and around the apse of the Saint Remi Basilica, which is an extant, early example in its original form (ca. 1170). Later architects progressively refined the design of the flying buttress, and narrowed the flyers, some of which were constructed with one thickness of voussoir (wedge brick) with a capping stone atop, e.g. the Amiens Cathedral, the Le Mans Cathedral, and the Beauvais Cathedral.
The architectural design of Late Gothic buildings featured flying buttresses, some of which featured flyers decorated with crockets (hooked decorations) and sculpted figures set in aedicules (niches) recessed into the buttresses. In the event, the architecture of the Renaissance eschewed the lateral support of the flying buttress in favour of thick-wall construction. Despite its disuse for function and style in construction and architecture, in the early 20th century, the flying-buttress design was revived by Canadian engineer William P. Anderson to build lighthouses.