Arches can be built by any mason anywhere, yet why do we ignore this option?

Let us imagine a school organising a student contest to sketch historic buildings and let us try guessing what could be the most common design element to be seen in majority of the sketches. For those who know of traditional buildings, the answer is easy – it could as well be an arch.

Right from the foundation to the roof, the simple curved form called arch has played a major role in constructing everything, from bridges to buildings. Romans built long roads to move people, often upon tall bridges supported on arches below. They built aqueducts to carry water across miles, raised high above the ground by tall arches. While these examples may sound royal, it is interesting to see how down to earth this idea is – nomadic people and farmers even today would pick up couple of long twigs, bent them, stick the ends on ground to get an arch form. This would be followed by many more of such arches to be topped with small tree branches full of leaves, thick gunny fabric, tarpaulin or some such material to withstand rain and sun.

The Mughals and Sultanets commissioned large mosques and public halls which could not have been built without arches. Though mistaken to be an element of Islamic architecture, arches are found all over the human settlements. Majority of public congregation spaces, be it in a palace or a shrine, employed this versatile curved form to create undisturbed indoor spaces. Unlike a wooden straight beam, which may not be available everywhere or cannot be stable beyond a certain length, arches could be used to create larger, clearer spaces. Also, they could be built in most parts of the world, being a construction type using smaller masonry units like stone or bricks.

The idea of an entrance, especially gateways, is not complete unless it is in arch form. In historic towns, the nobleman’s mansions would be highlighted by windows with arch top, often with coloured glass. Incidentally, a domed roof is nothing but multiple integrated arch forms erected across the space.

Arches can be built within the foundation to hold up the whole building, a technology we discussed in Green Sense column early on. Mostly they are seen atop a window like a lintel replacing the horizontal member, across the hall supporting the roof slab replacing a RCC beam, in pavilions supporting the roof replacing walls, in verandahs creating an inviting entrance and in such other places. Structurally or cosmetically, we also see them located between a large space dividing them as entrances and lounges or between living and dining rooms.

If arches are so omnipresent with such potential, why are there fewer arches seen in the buildings today? On most occasions, arches cost less money, yet why do we discard this idea and employ costlier ideas? Arches can be built locally by any mason anywhere, yet why do we ignore this option? It’s time to think about it all and revive this green and eco-friendly idea.

The writer is an architect working for eco-friendly designs and can be contacted at varanashi@gmail.com

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