The Buttress and the Flying Buttress

You Think All Buttresses Look Alike?

Flying butresses on the church abbey of St. Peter's in Eure-et-Loir, Centre, France
Saint Pierre in Chartres, France. Photo by Julian Elliott / robertharding / Getty Images

A buttress is a massive structure built to push against a masonry wall to support or reinforce the height of a building. See how they work in these photos.


The Flying Buttress and More

Flying buttress in York, England
English Gothic, 1300s AD, in York, Northern England. Photo by mikeuk / E+ / Getty Images

Structures made of stone are structurally very heavy. Even a wooden roof atop a tall building might add too much weight for the walls to support. One solution is to make the walls very thick at street-level, but this system becomes ridiculous if you want a very tall, stone structure.

Buttresses are often associated with the great cathedrals of Europe, but before Christianity the ancient Romans built great amphitheatres that sat thousands of people. Height for the seating was achieved with buttresses.

One of the greatest innovations of the Gothic era was the "flying buttress" system of structural support. Attaching to the external walls, arched stone was attached to huge buttresses built away from the wall as seen at Notre Dame in Paris. This system allowed builders to construct soaring cathedrals with massive interior spaces, while allowing walls to exhibit expansive stained glass windows.

Buttresses remain an important structural element in modern buildings. An innovative system of Y-shaped buttresses allowed the Burj Khalifa in Dubai to reach record-breaking height.

Other Definitions of Buttress

"An exterior mass of masonry set at an angle to or bonded into a wall which it strengthens or supports; buttresses often absorb lateral thrusts from roof vaults."— Dictionary of Architecture and Construction, Cyril M. Harris, ed., McGraw-Hill, 1975, p. 78

The Butt of It All

The noun buttress comes from the verb to butt. When you observe a butting action, like animals that butt heads, you see a thrusting force being imposed. In fact, our word for buttress comes from butten, which means to drive or thrust. So, the noun buttress comes from the verb of the same name. To buttress mean to support or prop up with a buttress, which pushes against the thing needing support.

A similar word has a different source. Abutments are the supporting towers on either side of an arch bridge, like the Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, California. Notice that there is only one "t" in noun abutment, which comes from the verb "abut," which means "to join end to end."

Buttress Types

The flying buttress may be the most well-known, but throughout the history of architecture, builders have designed different engineering methods to buttress a masonry wall. The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture sites these types:

  • angle buttresses
  • clasping buttress
  • diagonal buttress
  • flying buttress
  • lateral buttress
  • pier buttress
  • setback buttress

Why so many kinds of buttresses? Architecture is derivative, building on the successes of experimentation throughout time. Browse this photo gallery of buttress examples to expand your knowledge of what we call The Buttress Evolution.

The Basilica of St. Magdalene, 1100 AD

The Basilica of St. Magdalene, Vezelay, Yonne, Burgundy, France
The Basilica of St. Magdalene, Vezelay, Yonne, Burgundy, France. Photo by Julian Elliott / robertharding / Getty Images

 The medieval French town of Vezelay in Burgundy lays claim to a striking example of Romanesque architecture—the pilgrimage church Basilique Ste.Marie-Madeleine, built around 1100 AD.

Hundreds of years before Gothic buttresses "began to fly,"  medieval architects experimented with creating soaring, God-like interiors by using a series of arches and vaults. Professor Talbot Hamlin notes that "the need for withstanding the thrusts of the vaults, and the desire to avoid a wasteful use of stone, led to the development of exterior buttresses—that is, thicker portions of the wall, placed where they could give it extra stability."

Professor Hamlin goes on to explain how Romanesque architects experimented with engineering the buttress, "sometimes making it like an engaged column, sometimes as a projecting strip like a pilaster; and only gradually did they come to realize that its depth and not its width was the important element....."

The Vezelay Church is a UNESCO World Heritage site, notable as "a masterpiece of Burgundian Romanesque art and architecture."

Condom Cathedral, 1500 AD

Condom Cathedral, built in the early 1500s in Gers-Midi Pyrénées, France
Condom Cathedral, built in the early 1500s in Gers-Midi Pyrénées, France. Photo by Iñigo Fdz de Pinedo / Moment Open / Getty Images

Compared with the earlier Basilique Ste.Marie-Madeleine, the French pilgrimage church in Condom, Gers Midi-Pyrénées, is built with more refined and slender buttresses. It would not be long before Italian architects would extend the buttress away from the wall, as Andrea Palladio did at San Giorgio Maggiore.

San Giorgio Maggiore, 1610 AD

Buttresses on the side of Andrea Palladio's 16th century Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, Italy
Buttresses on the side of Andrea Palladio's 16th century Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, Italy. Photo by Dan Kitwood / Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images (cropped)

Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio became famous for bringing Classical Greek and Roman architectural designs to a new century. His Venice, Italy church San Giorgio Maggiore also exhibits the evolving buttress, now more slender and extended from the wall compared with the churches at Vezelay and Condom in France.

Flying buttresses of Saint Pierre

Flying butresses on the church abbey of St. Peter's in Eure-et-Loir, Centre, France
Saint Pierre in Chartres, France. Photo by Julian Elliott / robertharding / Getty Images

L'église Saint-Pierre in Chartres, France, is another fine example of the Gothic flying buttress. Like the more well-known Chartres Cathedral and Notre Dame de Paris, Saint Pierre is a medieval structure built and re-built throughout the centuries. By the 19th century, these Gothic cathedrals became part of the literature, art, and popular culture of the day. The Gothic Revival house style flourished from 1840-1880.

In Literature

"At the moment when his thought was thus fixed upon the priest, while the daybreak was whitening the flying buttresses, he perceived on the highest story of Notre-Dame, at the angle formed by the external balustrade as it makes the turn of the chancel, a figure walking." — Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, 1831

House with Flying Buttress

Stone house with a flying buttress
Stone house with a flying buttress. Photo by Dan Herrick / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

Owners of stone homes, no matter the height, have realized the engineering advantages and architectural beauty of the flying buttress.

Paoay Church, 1710

Paoay Church, c. 1710, in the Philippines
Paoay Church, c. 1710, in the Philippines. Photo by Luca Tettoni / robertharding / Getty Images (cropped)

Successful building techniques of the West migrated to areas of the world colonized by European countries. As Spain colonized the Philippines, a land of seismic activity, the system of buttress fortification created a style that became known as Earthquake Baroque. The Paoay Church is one such example. These Baroque Churches of the Philippines are now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, 1967

Modern Architecture Flying Buttresses of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral
Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, 1967, in Liverpool, UK. Photo by David Clapp / Photolibrary / Getty Images (cropped)

The buttress has evolved from an engineering necessity to an architectural design element. The buttress-like elements seen on this Liverpool, England church are certainly not necessary to hold up the structure. The flying buttress has become a design choice, as an historic homage to the great cathedral experiments.

Adobe Buttress

Buttress on Adobe Building
Buttress on Adobe Building. Photo by ivanastar / E+ / Getty Images (cropped)

In architecture, engineering and art come together. How can this building stand up? What do I have to do to make a stable structure? Can engineering be beautiful?

These questions asked by today's architects are the same puzzles explored by builders and designers of the past. The buttress is a good example of solving an engineering problem with evolving beautiful design.


  • The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture, Third Edition, 1980, p. 55
  • Architecture through the Ages by Professor Talbot Hamlin, FAIA, Putnam, Revised 1953, pp. 263-264
  • Photo of flying buttress at Notre Dame in Paris by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Hulton Archive Collection/Getty Images