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The History of Architecture in Eleven Arches

From crumbling ancient monuments to ethereal refracted light, we look at the shifting usage and form of the humble arch

The Arch: does any other fragment present a feat of structural engineering with such seemingly effortless grace? The Mesopotamians needed them for lack of stone or wood; the Romans needed them to dramatically span huge distances and to celebrate their victories; late medieval masons needed them to make their Gothic masterworks as structurally efficient as possible. Their dual purpose, bridging the rigorously pragmatic and excessively monumental featured long throughout their history, until advances in building technology effectively phased them out of everyday construction. Yet the arch’s seductive form – physical or otherwise – has made its mark across cultural disciplines and continues, undeterred, to be at the heart of some of our most awe-inspiring creations.


1. The Colosseum, Rome, 70-80 AD

The arch was used as early as the 2nd millennium BC, but it was the ever precocious Romans who began the systematic use of the arch, in their greatest engineering feats and as a means of celebrating their greatest military victories.

In the Colosseum these two functions are blended seamlessly, the largest amphitheatre in the world that housed Rome’s greatest spectacles, from battle reenactments to executions. With some 200 arches enclosing its elliptical form, the ancient landmark cements more than any Roman construct the graceful power of the arch.


2.Taq-i Kisra (Arch of Ctesiphon), Iraq, 540 AD

The Arch of Ctesiphon is all that remains of the ancient city, south-west of Baghdad, in what is now the town of Salman Pak. The largest brick-built arch in the world, its presence, while a reminder of one of Mesopotamia’s greatest cities, is now emblematic of the creeping death facing Iraq’s built heritage following decades of unrest.

With its former museum looted after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the entire area abandoned and battered by heavy rains, it stands on the brink of collapse. Although the Global Heritage Fund warned of its precarious state in 2004, it was not until last year that the Iraqi government confirmed plans for its restoration; with Islamic State now destroying even more of Iraq’s historical architecture it has taken on a new urgency.


3. Tintern Abbey, Wales, 1131-1536

The style of Tintern Abbey saw the arch become not only a trope for an architectural style, but for a whole cross-cultural movement. The pointed Gothic arch, slender and sinister, reduced the horizontal thrust of the traditional Roman arch; less force on the foundations was key to creating the lightness Gothic architecture strove for. Most of the original monastery’s construction at Tintern is completely gone – it is the abbey church, consecrated in the 14th century, that remains, now a picturesque ruin.

Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ mark its place in the canon of the literary sublime and Gothic – most recently appearing in the British Library’s Terror and Wonder exhibition, depicted by moonlight in a watercolour painting, its pointed arches taking centre stage.


4. Tangyue Memorial Archways, China, 1420-1820

In the Chinese Paifang, the arch becomes a conveyor of narrative, historically acting as the means of moving between fangs, similar to modern-day precincts. The Paifang dates back to the Zhou Dynasty (11th century to 256BC), and is usually built using fine wood or stone, consisting of multi-tiered roofs and supporting posts, often celebrating the achievements of family ancestors.

The Tangyue Memorial Archway complex was created during the Qing and Ming Dynasties, spanning over four centuries, and each arch stands along the village’s main street to represent the virtues of ancient families.


5. Gaudi’s Catenary Arches, 19th – 20th century

A devoted student of geometry in his younger years, Gaudi’s love of the catenary arch saw it move from feats of engineering into architecture. Praising its mechanical ability to distribute great weight evenly, it was this logic that was behind his wildly original architectural style.

The technical perfection and rich aesthetic that Gaudi is remembered for could be summed up entirely through the arch. Famously modelling the inversion of these catenary arches in miniature with chain and lead-shot bags, the recurring motif can be seen across his work, such as in the attics of the Casa Mila and Casa Battló.


6.  Gateway Arch by Eero Saarinen and Hannskarl Bandel, St Louis, 1965

A 192-metre vision in stainless steel, the Gateway Arch is national expansion writ large, an icon of mid-century Modernism that has become architectural shorthand for the city of St Louis. Designed by Eero Saarinen and Hannskarl Bandel, the catenary arch was technically ambitious; it remains the tallest stainless-steel monument in the world, its graceful form belying some 2,000 tonnes of steel.

Plagued with many setbacks because of the scale of its construction, it opened to the public in 1965, thrusting the arch into a sleek, technological future. This movement is not purely symbolic either; small cylindrical tram cars move up and down the archway’s arms to reach a visitor centre at the top. While we may only briefly pass through a triumphal arch, this icon is a place to dwell and reflect.


7. The Grande Arche, Paris, 1989

The 20th-century answer to the Arc de Triomphe, Johann Otto von Spreckelsen and Erik Reitzel’s Grande Arche in the La Défense business district topped off Paris’s Axe historique with a 3D tesseract clad in Carrara marble and glass. Celebrating humanity rather than the military victories touted by its Champs-Élysées cousin, the two sides of the arch house government offices, the top formerly housing a computing museum and restaurant that later closed due to an accident in an elevator – such are the problems faced by the modern arch.

Its angle on the historic axis – conveniently similar to that of the Louvre – is due to the sheer size of the arch’s foundations, jostling for space with the motorway and rail stations that all occupy the area beneath. Nonetheless, as an example of a ‘live-in monument’ it remains a rare example, and as a live-in arch even more so, making its inauguration during the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution all the more fitting.


8. Nicholas J Melas Centennial Fountain by Lohan Associates, Chicago, 1989

Built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago – the district that reversed the flow of the Chicago River in 1900 – Lohan Associates’ stepped waterfall shoots out an arc of water on the hour, every hour, creating an ephemeral 80-foot arch across the river.

Reminiscent of the ‘water salute’ – a series of arches created by fire engines under which aircraft and vehicles ceremonially pass – this celebration of one of the great engineering feats of the 20th century subverts the role of the arch as a permanent, unwavering memorial. Boats are welcome to move through this temporary arch, as long as they are prepared to be drenched during the process in what looks like a bizarre cleansing ritual.


9. Forest Pavilion by nArchitects, Taiwan, 2011

nArchitects used a series of 11 vaults to form the Forest Pavilion in Taiwan, designed to generate awareness of the threatened Da Nong Da Fu Forest.

Unveiled at the 2011 Taiwan Forestry Bureau art festival, nArchitects employed the local Amis tribe, masters of traditional bamboo construction, to create the arches from freshly cut bamboo. The result is a series of shapes reminiscent of St Louis’s Gateway, constructed by Taiwan’s largest aboriginal tribe.


10. Arcades by Troika, Belgium, 2012

Arcades, a project by London-based design studio Troika, uses the arch as a celebration of openness rather than enclosure. The artwork employs 14 columns of light that shine upwards in thin bars, passing through fresnel lenses to refract the rays of light into pointed, Gothic arches.

As with Chicago River’s water cannon, the arch does not necessarily need a permanent material presence for its ability to define space to be experienced.


11. Diébédo Francis Kéré Sensing Spaces exhibition, London, 2014 

The 1,867 polypropylene honeycomb panels in Diébédo Francis Kéré’s project for the Royal Academy’s Sensing Spaces exhibition appear as one arch after another. While many modern interpretations of the arch focus on visual spectacles, Kéré’s installation is designed as a space for interaction, its intimate tunnel-like space gradually filling with coloured straws inserted by visitors over the course of the exhibition. Nor was this the only arch to feature in the exhibition – Eduardo Souto de Moura placed two concrete arches next to existing openings, positioned to align with buildings outside the gallery similar to the Grande Arches’ alignment with the Louvre. The reimagining of the arch here is one of interpretation rather than physicality.

Technology may have shunned the arch from our everyday structures, but it is this same advancement in technology that has seen its symbolic and mechanical meanings take an even greater hold. Rem Koolhaas may have concluded his history of doorways with a grey airport security scanner, but the arch shows that the future of our threshold spaces needn’t be so bleak.

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