Vaults constructed of numerous blocks of material pressing against one another exert not only the accumulated downward weight of the material and of any superimposed load but also a side thrust or tendency to spread. To avoid collapse, adequate resistance against this thrust must thus be concentrated at the haunches (lower portions) of the vault. The resistance may take the form of thickened walls at the haunches; of buttresses placed at points of concentrated thrust as in Romanesque and Gothic architecture; or of vaults so placed that their thrusts oppose and counteract. This necessity has controlled the evolution of masonry vaulting and its use in buildings.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.