Impressions of Ancient Design: The Roman Arch

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Above: Arches support a curved bridge on the Mesa Vista Ranch in Roberts County, Texas. The reflections of the arches are reminiscent of the sketch Dallas, Texas architect, Steve Chambers, did in architecture school (shown below, right).

An integral part of our curriculum as an architecture student were the ancient builders, buildings and construction techniques of the Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek, Roman and other early civilizations. Many years after my days in college, I was able to travel to see some of these architectural wonders, experiencing their scale and magnitude in situ. I am awed at the endurance of the Roman arches.

While arches have existed for roughly 4,000 years, the Romans were the first to effectively employ their use in the construction of bridges, monuments and buildings. The ingenious arch design allows the weight of structures to be evenly distributed along various supports, preventing massive buildings like the Roman Colosseum from crumbling under their own weight. Early engineers improved on arches by flattening the shape to create a segmental arch, repeating them at various intervals. This allowed for the construction of stronger supports in bridges and aqueducts, lending to their ability to create longer spans.

This aqueduct carries water from an upper lake on the ranch to a waterfall and the lake below.

Recently, I had the opportunity to work with Boone Pickens and master builder Tommy Ford Construction on the Mesa Vista Ranch project that included a bridge and aqueduct, both supported by stone arch construction. The structural design was provided by Pete Hennessey, P.E. who recommended that the project use historic construction techniques that remain relevant today. The bridge and aqueduct are supported by stone arch construction, similar to those built in early civilizations. These types of projects are only possible when all of the professionals involved work successfully as a team from the planning stages and forward into the project. Video of efforts for water and wildlife conservation on Mesa Vista Ranch can be seen below.

The endurance of the Roman arch testifies to the versatility of ancient craftsmen and the continuing purity of their design well into the 21st century.

An example of the falsework centering used to support an arch for a bridge under construction.

Below are sketches by Texas architect, Steve Chambers, of early arches and centering (shoring) techniques from the Roman and Gothic periods. Also pictured are examples of modern arches and modern centering done by Tommy Ford Construction at Mesa Vista Ranch. The black and white photo is of the 1911 Monroe Street bridge construction in Spokane, Washington.

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