A buttress refers to an architectural construction on the outside of a building to provide support to the walls. The original buttress was attached on the wall all the way to the top. When the buttress was detached from the wall, it formed an arch to connect with the top of the wall, it appeared to be soaring or flying. This soaring appearance is what led to the name of the flying buttress. Arc-boutant is a French term used to refer to this type of buttressing and provides a more accurate description of the structure since it means thrust through the arch. Some buildings got several buttresses providing an enhanced flying effect as well as making it possible to create larger open areas on taller structures such as early cathedrals.
It is unclear where the origin of the flying buttress comes from. For many centuries, architectural design, particularly the one involved in religious structures, have pursued dramatic safe enclosed interior areas. In the early Byzantine and Roman constructions, engineers used buttresses but masked the stonework from plain view. During the Gothic architecture era, the use of buttresses was embraced as decorative and started showing up in cathedrals. The buttresses not only offered a spiritual building marvel, but they also allowed masons to add windows to unusually heavy walls.
Between the 12th and 13th centuries, Engineers allowed the construction of huge architectures. The use of Gothic arcs, the rib vaults, and flying buttressing was utilized to provide solutions to provisions of natural light in structures taller than usual. Among the earliest buildings to receive this feature is the Abbey of Saint-Denis, constructed in Paris 1135 to 1144. From a simple look at the history of this structure in architecture, it is easy to see the domination of France in constructing these flying support structure.
Regardless of its origin, the flying buttress has become popular in different countries. It has been incorporated in many ancient as well as modern architectural structures to provide the same solutions. One of the most notable constructions to utilize the flying buttress is the Notre Dame in Paris which was started in 1163 and completed in 1345. These flying buttresses were also used in the Duomo in Milan, Saint Chapelle in Paris, as well as other cathedrals in Amiens, Reims, and London.
Though the initial aim of buttressing was to provide support to the heavy load walls and allow windows, with time, they became decorative. As the style became popular, the builders in different towns in France started competing to go higher. Their target was to construct taller structural marvels that were safer by reducing the load through the use of glass. This explains the large stained-glass windows that have become synonymous with ancient cathedrals. Without buttressing, taller structures were dealt with cracking and collapsing. The buttress was used to salvage buildings through support similar to that offered by temporary shoring used on incomplete buildings.
Today, buttressing is still in use in different modern constructions. Engineers use these ancient support systems on buildings to retain walls or in supporting dam walls.