Arch - History

History

True arches, as opposed to corbel arches, were known by a number of civilizations in the Ancient Near East, the Levant, and Mexico, but their use was infrequent and mostly confined to underground structures such as drains where the problem of lateral thrust is greatly diminished. A rare exception is the bronze age arched city gate of Ashkelon (modern day Israel), dating to ca. 1850 B.C. An early example of a voussoir arch appears in the Greek Rhodes Footbridge. In 2010, a robot discovered a long arch-roofed passageway underneath the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl which stands in the ancient city of Teotihuacan north of Mexico City, dated to around 200 AD.

The ancient Romans learned the arch from the Etruscans, refined it and were the first builders to tap its full potential for above ground buildings:

The Romans were the first builders in Europe, perhaps the first in the world, fully to appreciate the advantages of the arch, the vault and the dome.

Throughout the Roman empire, their engineers erected arch structures such as bridges, aqueducts, and gates. They also introduced the triumphal arch as a military monument. Vaults began to be used for roofing large interior spaces such as halls and temples, a function which was also assumed by domed structures from the 1st century BC onwards.

The segmental arch was first built by the Romans who realized that an arch in a bridge did not have to be a semicircle, such as in Alconétar Bridge or Ponte San Lorenzo. They were also routinely used in house construction as in Ostia Antica (see picture).

The semicircular arch was followed in Europe by the pointed Gothic arch or ogive whose centreline more closely followed the forces of compression and which was therefore stronger. The semicircular arch can be flattened to make an elliptical arch as in the Ponte Santa Trinita. Both the parabolic and the catenary arches are now known to be the theoretically strongest forms. Parabolic arches were introduced in construction by the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí, who admired the structural system of Gothic style, but for the buttresses, which he termed “architectural crutches”. The catenary and parabolic arches carry all horizontal thrust to the foundation and so do not need additional elements.

The horseshoe arch is based on the semicircular arch, but its lower ends are extended further round the circle until they start to converge. The first known built horseshoe arches are known from Aksum (modern day Ethiopia and Eritrea) from around the 3rd–4th century, around the same time as the earliest contemporary examples in Roman Syria, suggesting either an Aksumite or Syrian origin for the type of arch.

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