An arch

An arch is an opening in a building that is curved on top. The curved part can be round, like part of a circle, or pointed, like two parts of circles next to each other. Arches are often used where buildings are made of lots of small stones or bricks. The stone at the very top of the arch, called the keystone, keeps the rest of the arch stones from falling down. Arches can go over doorways and windows. Many bridges are arches.

Basic concepts

An arch is a soft compression form. It can span a large area by resolving forces into compressive stresses and, in turn eliminating tensile stresses. This is sometimes referred to as arch action. As the forces in the arch are carried to the ground, the arch will push outward at the base, called thrust. As the rise, or height of the arch decreases, the outward thrust increases. In order to maintain arch action and prevent the arch from collapsing, the thrust needs to be restrained, either with internal ties or external bracing, such as abutments.

Fixed vs hinged arch

Rossgrabenbruecke 01 09
Rossgraben bridge (Rüeggisberg) near Bern, Switzerland, showing the hinge at mid-span of this three-hinged arch.

The most common true arch configurations are the fixed arch, the two-hinged arch, and the three-hinged arch.

The fixed arch is most often used in reinforced concrete bridge and tunnel construction, where the spans are short. Because it is subject to additional internal stress caused by thermal expansion and contraction, this type of arch is considered to be statically indeterminate.

The two-hinged arch is most often used to bridge long spans. This type of arch has pinned connections at the base. Unlike the fixed arch, the pinned base is able to rotate, allowing the structure to move freely and compensate for the thermal expansion and contraction caused by changes in outdoor temperature. However, this can result in additional stresses, so the two-hinged arch is also statically indeterminate, although not to the degree of the fixed arch.

The three-hinged arch is not only hinged at its base, like the two-hinged arch, but at the mid-span as well. The additional connection at the mid-span allows the three-hinged arch to move in two opposite directions and compensate for any expansion and contraction. This type of arch is thus not subject to additional stress caused by thermal change. The three-hinged arch is therefore said to be statically determinate. It is most often used for medium-span structures, such as large building roofs.

Another advantage of the three-hinged arch is that the pinned bases are more easily developed than fixed ones, allowing for shallow, bearing-type foundations in medium-span structures. In the three-hinged arch, "thermal expansion and contraction of the arch will cause vertical movements at the peak pin joint but will have no appreciable effect on the bases," further simplifying the foundation design.

Types of arches

Arches have many forms, but all fall into three basic categories: circular, pointed, and parabolic. Arches can also be configured to produce vaults and arcades.

Arches with a circular form, also referred to as rounded arches, were commonly employed by the builders of ancient, heavy masonry arches. Ancient Roman builders relied heavily on the rounded arch to span large, open areas. Several rounded arches placed in-line, end-to-end, form an arcade, such as the Roman aqueduct.

Semi-circular arches using brick and/or stone block construction at the Great Wall, China
Pont du gard panoramique
Roman aqueduct near Nîmes, France: an arcade, employing the circular arch
Arches and columns, Great Mosque of Kairouan
Horseshoe arches in the 9th-century Mosque of Uqba, in Kairouan, Tunisia

Pointed arches were most often used by builders of Gothic-style architecture. The advantage to using a pointed arch, rather than a circular one, is that the arch action produces less thrust at the base. This innovation allowed for taller and more closely spaced openings, typical of Gothic architecture.

Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula in Brussels, Belgium, with a central pointed arch window, typical of Gothic architecture

Vaults are essentially "adjacent arches [that] are assembled side by side." If vaults intersect, complex forms are produced with the intersections. The forms, along with the "strongly expressed ribs at the vault intersections, were dominant architectural features of Gothic cathedrals."

Interior vaulted ceiling of Notre Dame de Paris, showing the ribs at the intersection of several arches

The parabolic arch employs the principle that when weight is uniformly applied to an arch, the internal compression resulting from that weight will follow a parabolic profile. Of all arch types, the parabolic arch produces the most thrust at the base, but can span the largest areas. It is commonly used in bridge design, where long spans are needed.

Tyne Bridge - Newcastle Upon Tyne - England - 2004-08-14
Tyne Bridge in Newcastle upon Tyne, England: a parabolic arch used in bridge design
Pont d'arcades de Móra d'Ebre (Ribera d'Ebre, Catalonia)
A series of parabolic arches on the Móra d'Ebre bridge, Catalonia

The catenary arch has a shape different from the parabolic curve. The shape of the curve traced by a loose span of chain or rope, the catenary is the structurally ideal shape for a freestanding arch of constant thickness.

Types of arches displayed chronologically, roughly in the order in which they were developed:

Other types

Delicate Arch, a natural arch in Arches National Park near Moab, Utah
Arch Balance (cropped)
A rock balance sculpture in the form of an arch

A blind arch is an arch infilled with solid construction so it cannot function as a window, door, or passageway.

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

Rock formations may form natural arches through erosion, rather than being carved or constructed. Structures such as this can be found in Arches National Park.

Some rock balance sculptures are in the form of an arch.

The arches of the foot support the weight of the human body.


Arch Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.