Although the use of arches in architecture dates back to the 2nd millennium B.C., it was the Romans who solidified them as both an engineering element and a symbol of military victories, which we now see excessively as memorial arches. Shortly after, different civilizations and cultures adopted the arch for their own purposes, bridging together structural necessity and aesthetics. In this article, we look at how arches evolved from significant structural elements to captivating decorative details.
Similar to how the function of arches evolved throughout the years with different civilizations, its form changed as well. Romans utilized the semicircular arch for their bridges and grand structures, whereas the Abbasids (a caliphate that ruled the Arab, Persian, and Mesopotamian regions) opted for the pointed arch, initiating its reference to religion and grandiosity. Following their use in mosques, pointed arches became extensively used in cathedrals in Medieval Europe, and were developed into vaults, making the two essential design elements in Gothic architecture. Segmental arches were introduced during the Middle Ages, optimizing bridge constructions for their load-bearing capabilities. The 19th and 20th centuries saw the use of Catenary arches, which promoted the arch from a structural feat to an architectural one, as seen extensively in Gaudi’s architecture. Fast forward to modern times, arches have been further explored and manipulated, adopting numerous new styles and functions.
Since earliest civilizations, masons have taken advantage of arches’ structural abilities and have constructed monumental structures that are still standing to this day. In terms of engineering, arches are considered more advantageous than lintels and horizontal beams due to the fact that they can be assembled with smaller material, and are able to span wider openings. The reason for this is that the pressure traveling downwards pushes the voussoirs (the stones forming the shape of the arch) together and downwards towards the bulky vertical supports, instead of outwards. In the case of slimmer vertical supports, repetitive rows of arches and their vertical supports are aligned consecutively, allowing the imposed weight to be distributed amongst the arcade (series of arches). Today, adaptive reuse projects saw the rehabilitation of these arches and vaults, maintaining their structural purposes but with a refined contemporary finish.
Several adaptive reuse projects left the form of their arched doors and windows intact, bridging the historic with the contemporary. This old x new design style creates a balance between traditional characteristics that radiate warmth and familiarity, and modern elements that radiate edge and dynamism. Since modern architecture embodies minimal and linear geometric structures, adding arched openings creates a visual contrast, animating the facade and structure as a whole. In some residential projects, architects described arched windows and doors as “child-friendly approach, adding curves to the walls and an arched window for each child”.
Wall / Partition
Another way architects and designers have implemented arches in their designs is through arched interior walls and partitions. As mentioned before, arches have great load-bearing characteristics, so having arched interior walls and partitions will not cause any structural constraints. Instead, the design acts as a soft intervention that’s not too imposing or disruptive to the space, opening two spaces together while maintaining their respective boundaries.
Motif on Wall
In projects where space is limited, designers add an additional “false wall” just in front of the existing one to create a dual-space and depth illusion. Oftentimes, these false walls differ in scale and finish to highlight the contrast between both. In this case, however, these motifs hold minimal to no responsibility in carrying the weight of the ceiling above them, since they are mainly used for decorative or conceptual purposes.
Installations are all about first impressions, so the use of arch-shaped installations is hardly random or coincidental. In addition to premeditated design concepts and the reasons mentioned above, these installations are seen as inviting structures that establish visual continuity and provide a sense of direction for their visitors. Although pointed arches are seen as vertical extensions, guiding the eye upwards, visitors still feel as though the structure is embracing them.
Furniture and Accessories
When it comes to furniture, accessories, and ornaments, designers have combined all of the arches' attributes mentioned above and employed them in smaller scales. Whether it’s for their structural stability or sense of order, designers have paid homage to historic architecture through the smallest design features, creating timeless interior designs.
Another way arches have been employed in contemporary architecture is as the project’s entire form, and this article cannot be complete without looking at these projects and how they have impacted the interior space. The use of these extended arches and barrel vaults make the interior space appear like tunnels, continuous and elongated, resulting in an uninterrupted perspective from inside and connecting it with the outside landscape or scenery. In addition, arched architectures were used for ventilation purposes, as they allow air to circulate within the space more freely and abundantly. In certain projects, they were used as a conceptual reference to other elements, such as historic churches and cathedrals, or to mimic “the visual and acoustic experience of the movement of the waves”.
This article is part of an ArchDaily series that explores features of interior architecture, from our own data base of projects. Every month, we will highlight how architects and designers are utilizing new elements, new characteristics and new signatures in interior spaces around the world. As always, at ArchDaily, we highly appreciate the input of our readers. If you think we should mention specific ideas, please submit your suggestions.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 05, 2021.