Why do we use arches? - History of Architecture
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Why do we use arches?

People building houses or any other kind of people have always had this one big problem, which you may have had also if you ever tried to build a clubhouse: how do you get the roof to stay up?

Flat Roof

How do you build the part of the wall over the door or the window? One way (the way people figured out first) is to have a long piece of wood or stone that goes over the whole way from one wall to the other, like this:

Gabled Roof

But if you want to make a big building, you need very long beams to make a flat roof like that. And there are not very many big trees in the Mediterranean, so it is very hard to get so many long beams. One thing that helps is to make slanted roofs (gabled roofs), which is what most Greek temples have. But you still need a lot of expensive long beams.


The arch is a way of making a roof or a doorway or a window without using any beams at all: just a lot of small stones, or small blocks of wood, or clay bricks. That's a lot cheaper and easier to get than the big beams. You use the weight of the blocks to hold the arch together.

You can try this yourself if you get a set of arch-building blocks. Or cut them yourself out of wood. Try it with Legos. You lay the arch out on a board laid flat on the floor, and then tilt it up slowly and see if it holds.

Project on arches

Biblography and further reading:

Arches to Zigzags: An Architecture ABC, by Michael J. Crosbie (2000). Shows what an arch is, or a gable, or an eave. For younger kids.

Eyewitness: Building, by Philip Wilkinson, Dave King, and Geoff Dann (2000). Lavishly illustrated, like other Eyewitness books for kids, and with good explanations of most architectural terms.

City: A Story of Roman Planning and Construction, by David Macaulay (1983).

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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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Now that the weather's nice, try some of these outdoor activities! How about bicycle polo, or archery for a Medieval Islam day? Or kite flying or making a compass for a day in Medieval China? How about making a shaduf for a day in Ancient Egypt? Holding an Ancient Greek Olympic Games or a medieval European tournament? Building a Native American wickiup?