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What Is a Buttress?

The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, which uses flying buttresses in its design, is one of the most famous cathedrals in the world.
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris uses buttresses as part of its architectural design.
King's College Chapel at the University of Cambridge is an example of a building with buttresses.
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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 November 2014
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A buttress is an architectural structure that serves to strengthen or reinforce the supports of a main structure. Popular in certain forms of architecture dating back to ancient times, the buttress allows a more efficient distribution of weight and load, providing a sounder support system. Buttresses are often highly decorated and impressive, and are perhaps most famous for their association with Gothic architecture.

Buttresses are typically made of strong materials, such as brick or stone. Though sometimes ornately carved and shaped themselves, buttresses actually allow greater flexibility of artistry in creating the main walls of a structure, as they reduce the need for primary walls to be the support system of the ceiling or roof. By installing a buttress, main walls carry less weight and can therefore be carved delicately or even hollowed out to allow for windows and archways.

The invention and perfection of buttresses allowed for many artistic trends to develop, particularly in the design of large buildings. Stained glass windows, for instance, are often found in cathedrals and churches that rely heavily on the added strength of regular or flying buttresses. These often enormous windows require large open spaces in main structural walls that could render the building seriously unstable without proper support. The functional and sturdy buttress allowed for greater artistic expression, resulting in some of the most exquisite and impressive buildings the world has ever seen.

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The origin of buttressing is unknown, but some evidence and remaining buildings suggest this architectural technique was first used in ancient Greece and Rome. Although commonly used since that period, it was not until the 13th and 14th century that it became common to create highly decorated forms of the structural support. Although use of buttresses is no longer extremely common, impressive relics of the style's heyday remain around the world, proudly continuing to hold up massive buildings nearly a thousand years after being built.

One highly recognized form are the famous flying buttresses of Gothic buildings. Instead of leaning directly against the main walls, a flying buttress is a wholly separate structure attached to the main building by use of arches. Flying buttresses were extremely popular during the 13th century, when many grand cathedrals and castles were built using these unusual structures. Some famous examples of flying buttresses from this period include the Abbey at Bath, England and the fantastic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France.

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