Not deferential enough: Flying buttresses

Posted Wednesday, May 18, 2011 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: Flying buttresses

The flying buttresses (no snickering!) at Chartres Cathedral.

by Gina Hamilton

If you had a Superior Liberal Arts Education, like I did, and if you were surrounded by a lot of repressed young female types, as I was (with one notable exception – I shall mention no names), then you probably remember giggling into your handkerchiefs when your art history teacher started talking about flying buttresses.

Not that they were actually funny. Flying buttresses are just those lovely medieval arches that seemed to miraculously hold up buildings that have no business standing up – cathedrals and the like – by diverting the weight of the buildings from the direct force of gravity (which would pull them straight down) to locations on the various sides of the buildings, which removes some of the immediate downward force and makes them for all intents and purposes "lighter" than a stone-and-stained-glass building should be.

Your ancestors and mine made them beautiful, so no one giggled when someone pointed out a flying buttress in real life, and somehow, the miracle of physics led to an acceptance of the divine as God's Own Houses soared practically into the stratosphere without wiping out the worshippers inside. Except occasionally they did collapse and wipe out said worshippers.

So it was with a mixture of curiosity and an undeniable urge to giggle that I reacted when it was suggested to me that the best way to keep Turning Tide Cottage's lovely deck where it is would be to create flying buttresses (a much simpler design than Chartres Cathedral's) to take the weight off the deck and sink it into the earth some three feet away.

None of this would have been necessary had the Previous Owner Whose Name Is Uttered Ever in an Oath had spent a little time sinking the pillars that support the very, very massive deck properly, and had he built the retaining walls beneath the deck properly.

But of course, he didn't, and so here we are. And since we want a Chartres Deck, rather than a Beauvais (which collapsed in 1284), we have to do some work to reinforce it. And of course, we have to get under the deck with some regularity since the ancient root cellar is there, and needs to be visited to deal with all things electrical and plumbical.

Now I am trying to work out what our buttresses should look like. I think stone arches would be a bit twee, especially on the side of a cottage, but they have to be somewhat stronger (and less likely to rot) than wood, so I am asking people what right triangular shaped iron braces (or steel or something) might run. For not only does this have to be done right, from a physical perspective, it has to be done right from a pocketbook perspective.

Anyone with any suggestions should contact me immediately. Credit will be given cheerfully to the winning design. Come on, my engineering and carpenteering friends! You know you've always wanted to design a flying buttress!

Although the calendar protests that it is spring already, the sad truth is that the cold and damp seem to be clinging to us without let-up.  Luckily, it is not frosty, which means that all the plants round here will probably survive, but they will grow oh so slowly until the sun comes out for good. I am told by friends in the know that it won't be this week. Every time it rains, the ground beneath the deck slips a little bit more, and the retaining walls begin to resemble corbeled arches (remember those, liberal artists?) which, though theoretically solid, are not something I would care to find myself under when the final collapse comes.

It will all need to be shored up. In the meantime, we will put our trust, as we so often do, in the twin miracles of science and engineering.  But just in case, a little prayer can't hurt.

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