For other uses, see Arch (disambiguation).
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Simple arch bridge

An arch is a curved structure capable of spanning a space while supporting significant weight (e.g. a doorway in a stone wall). The arch was developed in Ancient Greece and later refined in Ancient Rome. The arch became an important technique in cathedral building and is still used today in some modern structures as for example in bridges.


Technical aspects

The arch is significant because it replaces the traditional tensile stresses in spanning structural members into compressive stresses only. Stone is weak in tension and cannot span significant distances without collapsing under its own weight. By configuring it into an arch, significant spans can be achieved. This same principle holds when the force acting on the arch is not vertical such as in spanning a doorway, but horizontal, such as in arched retaining walls or dams.


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Close-up of a semi-circular arch in Barcelona, Spain.

Arches were used by the Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek and Assyrian civilizations for underground structures such as drains and vaults, but the ancient Romans were the first to use them widely above ground. The so-called Roman arch is semicircular, and built from an odd number of arch bricks (in modern architectural parlance, these are called voussoirs). The capstone or keystone is the topmost stone in the arch. This shape is the simplest to build, but not the strongest. There is a tendency for the sides to bulge outwards, which must be counteracted by an added weight of masonry to push them inwards. The semicircular arch can be flattened to make an elliptical arch. The horseshoe arch is based on the semicircular arch, but its lower ends are extended further round the circle until they start to converge. It was used in Spanish Visigothic architecture, Islamic architecture, as in the Great Mosque of Damascus and in later Moorish buildings. It was used for decoration rather than for strength. The semicircular arch was followed in Europe by the pointed Gothic arch or ogive, whose centreline more closely followed the forces of compression and which was therefore stronger. This design had been used by the Assyrians as early as 722 BC. The parabolic and catenary arches are now known to be the theoretically strongest forms.

The arch was used in some bridges in China since the Song dynasty.

Other types

A dome is a three-dimensional application of the arch. Igloos are notable early structures making use of domes.

A special form of the arch is the triumphal arch, usually built to celebrate a victory in war. The most famous example of this is the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France.

Natural rock formations may also be referred to as 'arches'. These natural arches are formed by erosion rather than being carved or constructed by man. See Arches National Park for examples.


An arch requires all of its elements to hold it together. This raises the interesting question of how an arch is actually constructed. One simple answer is to build a frame (historically, of wood) which exactly follows the inside shape of the arch, or enough of it to provide support during construction. For an arch higher than head height, scaffolding would in any case be required by the builders, so the scaffolding can be combined with the arch support. Occasionally arches would fall down when the frame was removed if construction or planning had been incorrect. (The A85 bridge at Dalmally, Scotland suffered this fate on its first attempt, in the 1940s).

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