What Is A Flying Buttress In Architecture

A flying buttress is an architectural feature composed of an arched structure that transfers the outward thrust of a vault from an arch or dome outward and downward, providing lateral reinforcement to a structure that would otherwise be unsupported. Flying buttresses have been used in various forms since the 11th century, but the most famous examples are found in the Gothic cathedrals of Europe such as Notre Dame de Paris and Amiens, where flying buttresses support the higher arches of the vaulted ceiling.

Architectural experts contend that the soaring ogival vaulted ceilings popularized in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance would not have been possible without the invention of the flying buttress. Prior to the flying buttress, the weight of the vault was supported almost entirely on the walls which could not be any thicker than a meter, otherwise the walls could buckle. By directing the outward thrust of the vault to external longitudinal buttresses, thinner walls were possible, allowing the vault to become increasingly more daring.

In addition to the lateral support offered by buttresses, flying buttresses also work to equalize the forces acting on a structure. Throughout its history, buttresses have served to redistribute the forces of the superstructure, such as a vaulted roof, to other parts of the building, including the ground. This is commonly referred to as buttress thrust. With flying buttresses, however, the thrust is directed downwards rather than outward, allowing for a more stable structure. Furthermore, flying buttresses are significantly more stable than regular buttresses as the weight is divided among several columns rather than just one, making them less prone to failure.

Furthermore, flying buttresses were visually appealing and allowed architects to create more awe-inspiring and impressive designs. Buttress supports allowed more room to increases the size of windows, creating larger, more elaborate stained glass works as seen in churches such as Ely Cathedral in England. Flying buttresses also allow an impressive array of possibilities for intricate decorative carvings to be made at the base of the buttresses, especially along the keystones.

While flying buttresses were mainly used in Gothic architecture, their use has been seen in other styles, including Romanesque and Renaissance architecture. A great example of a Renaissance-style flying buttress is the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy. Built in the 15th century, the Palazzo features traditional flying buttresses, as well as contemporary touches such as travertine stones and a centrally placed rusticated arch.

It’s important to note that flying buttresses have not just been used in churches. Flying buttresses can also be found in residential, public, and commercial buildings, courtyards, and even bridges, in many different architectural styles. For example, the Louvre in Paris features a wide variety of flying buttresses, and is a great example of the versatility of this architectural feature.

What Are The Different Types Of Flying Buttresses?

There are a few types of flying buttress designs that are typically seen in architecture today. The most common type is the arch-style which, like its name suggests, is an arch that is used to transfer the outward thrust of the vault to a lateral buttress. A second type is a pierced framework buttress, which is similar to the arch-style except that it has several openings that direct the thrust downwards rather than sideways. Finally, there is the cantilever style, which is used to support heavy loads from above, such as bell towers, and can even be used to support multiple levels.

Advantages Of Flying Buttresses

The most obvious advantage of using buttresses is that they help to distribute the outward thrust of the superstructure, such as a vaulted ceiling, outwards and downwards, rather than outward and upwards, providing extra stability to the structure. As mentioned previously, buttresses also allow for larger and more elaborate stained glass windows and other decorative carvings to be made at the base of the buttresses. Additionally, flying buttresses are significantly more stable than regular buttresses as the weight is divided among several columns rather than just one, which makes them less prone to failure. Finally, flying buttresses offer more visual appeal and make stunning architectural designs possible.

Disadvantages Of Flying Buttress

As with any architectural feature, there are some disadvantages to using flying buttresses. As with regular buttresses, flying buttresses have to be built from robust materials such as stone or brick, which can be difficult to work with. Additionally, the buttresses can be difficult and expensive to maintain, especially if they are made from more fragile materials such as wood or metal. Finally, while they can provide extra stability, the outward thrust of the vault still needs to be supported by other structural components such as thick walls.

Application Of Flying Buttresses Today

While the use of buttresses is not as widespread as it once was, they are still widely used in modern architecture. While they are primarily used in more traditional styles of architecture, they can also be used in more contemporary styles as well. Their main advantage is that they help to equalize the forces acting on a structure, allowing for more daring roof designs, larger stained glass windows, and more intricate carvings. As such, they are a great way to add both stability and visual appeal to any architectural design.


Flying buttresses are a type of architectural feature composed of an arched structure that allows for a greater distribution of weight in a structure, as well as for more daring and visually appealing designs. While their use has become less common in recent years, they are still a popular choice for those looking to incorporate traditional designs into their architecture. Furthermore, they offer both stability and visual appeal, making them a great choice for any architect looking to create stunning designs.

Anita Johnson is an award-winning author and editor with over 15 years of experience in the fields of architecture, design, and urbanism. She has contributed articles and reviews to a variety of print and online publications on topics related to culture, art, architecture, and design from the late 19th century to the present day. Johnson's deep interest in these topics has informed both her writing and curatorial practice as she seeks to connect readers to the built environment around them.

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