Wooden arches

Another posting about the objects of everyday life and how good design can provide us with small pleasures. In this case, the wooden arches that grace my condo complex, serving as entrance ways on the street, as trellises for vines, and as decorative elements for people on the street as well as for those of us inside the complex. The  current installation (recently repaired):

(#1) Dark-stained wood in the morning sun: four uprights; horizontally on top, two lintels (lintels going left to right) deep and ten rafters (rafters going front to back) wide; ivy climbing on the two front uprights

(That’s my place, 722, on the left, the stairs to 718 and 720 on the right.)

The repair job replaced the right back upright and all the stuff on top. Some details below

In addition to framing things in your line of sight, the arch also provides a nice play of sun and shadow as the day goes on. Close-up from #1:


Days of dry rot and ivy. A couple of months back, bits of rafter wood began falling to the ground (probably jiggled loose by the squirrels and roof rats). Soft punky wood. It became clear that the arch was dying an ugly death, in bits, and soon would just collapse.

As it happens, another condo had this problem last year, and it was ghastly. In the end, the contractors took down the whole structure, every part of it, even the footings for the columns, and of course the electrical connections inside the front lintel (note the light bulb in #1 — you probably didn’t, but you have now). It took lots of guys and lots of time, and it was enormously noisy, dirty, and of course expensive.

As it turns out, the workers didn’t think that much devastation and reconstruction was necessary — the owner insisted on it —  so they resented that job, even though it meant real money for them. When it came time to fix my arch, they confided to me that they could do a much nicer job than up the street, preserve most of what I had instead of just smashing it all, and even make it easy for me to get in and out of my front door whenever I needed to (the neighbors up the street couldn’t use their front door for a week).

Well, this crew had done other work on my condo, so we knew and respected each other. And, most important, they took pride in their workmanship and wanted to do the best possible job. They ended up being really pleased with how cleverly they did it.

Only one column to replace, and they were able to connect with the old footer. Then all the stuff on top, in a kind of rapid ballet of assembly and bolting. While carefully not interfering with my plantings. A quick sealer coat on the wood. Later, a morning with a first coat of stain. Next morning, the other, and here we are.

The ivy will now climb up to the top of the columns and across the lintels, to make a green doorway. About half of the wooden arches in the complex are ivy-covered, while the other half are covered with the showy yellow trumpet vine

 Dolichandra unguis-cati, commonly known as cats claw creeper, funnel creeper, or cat’s claw trumpet (5/9/17 posting “Blooming on the street”)

Now about to burst into bloom.

Arches: artefactuality, form and function. The NOAD entry:

noun arch: [a] a curved symmetrical structure spanning an opening and typically supporting the weight of a bridge, roof, or wall above it. [b] an arched structure forming a passageway or a ceremonial monument: a triumphal arch. [c] a shape resembling an arch or a thing with such a shape: the delicate arch of his eyebrows. [d] the inner side of the foot. ORIGIN Middle English: from Old French arche, based on Latin arcus ‘bow’.

First note, on artefactuality. The basic uses of the noun are for artefacts — structures created by people — rather than objects of nature. Natural arches, like this one:

(#3) Delicate Arch in Arches National Park in Utah

are so-called (NOAD‘s sense c) because of their resemblance to human-made structures (cf. the stapes, lit. ‘stirrup’, bone in the middle ear), though metaphors often run in the other direction (the legs of a table, the arms of a chair, the eye of a needle, etc.).

Second note, on form. All of NOAD‘s senses for arch involve curvature (in line with the etymology, referring to the curve of an archer’s bow), and indeed arch structures come in a variety of curved shapes (see below), but arch is now also used for what are sometimes called rectangular arches, the three-sided structure of which my wooden arch is an instance. Instead of a semicircle shape —


or some other symmetric open-bottomed curve, the shape in question looks like this:


And for this, English has no everyday term. Google Images think #4 is a picture of a table, and indeed the metaphorical table would be a good choice as a name for it, and for the whole family of symmetric open-bottomed right-angled shapes (the TABLESHAPE category).

Now I note that English also has no everyday name for symmetric open-bottomed curved shapes, embracing at least semi-circles, semi-ellipses, pointed variants of these, parabolas, and inverted catenaries (which I’ll call catenaries for short) — what I’ll now refer to the ARCSHAPE category, instances of which we might call (as a technical term) arcs.

And finally, I note that although I believe that most people in modern Western cultures see tables like #4 and arcs like #3 as instances of a single high-level category (of symmetric open-bottomed shapes), we again have no everyday label for that category. I mischievously suggest that the higher-level category be called ARCHSHAPE, and that its instances be called (again as a technical term) arches.

Third note, on function. NOAD‘s arch-a is an architectural arch (typically of stone or concrete), whose function is to bear weight. NOAD‘s arch-b is the arch as artwork, usually with symbolic content. The entry mentions two subtypes, passageway arches, serving as gateways or entrances (my wooden arch is one of these) and arches with ceremonial, memorial, or monumental (often triumphal) function. To which I would add arches as commercial symbols.

And to arches as functional architectural features and arches as symbolic artwork, I would add garden arches, functioning as trellises, as supports for plants (my wooden arch is both a passageway arch and a garden arch).

Notes on shapes.  In the architectural context, the round arch:


and its pointed variant:


Both parabolic and catenary arches are better at distributing the weight of a structure above them than rounded (semicircular) arches. Many also find them more pleasing to the eye. On the other hand, rounded arches are easier to build. So rounded arches are common in triumphal arches, like the Arc de Triomphe (in Paris) and the Washington Square Arch (in NYC), but catenaries and parabolas tend to be used for gateway and commercial arches, where the designers want to draw attention to the shapes: the elegant St. Louis Gateway Arch is a catenary, and the Golden Arches of McDonald’s are parabolas.

From Wikipedia:

(#7) The McDonald’s logo

The Golden Arches are the symbol of McDonald’s, the global fast food restaurant chain. Originally, real arches were part of the restaurant design. They were incorporated into the chain’s logo in 1962, which resembled a stylized restaurant, and in the current Golden Arches logo, introduced 1968, resembling an “M” for “McDonald’s”. They are widely regarded to be one of the most recognizable logos in the world.

… Along with their practical knowledge, [in 1952] the brothers [Richard and Maurice McDonald] brought [architect Stanley Clark] Meston a rough sketch of two half-circle arches drawn by Richard. The idea of an arch had struck Richard as a memorable shape to make their stand more visible. After considering one arch parallel to the front of the building, he had sketched two half-circles on either side of the stand. Meston, together with his assistant Charles Fish, responded with a design which included two 25-foot (7.6 m) yellow sheet-metal arches trimmed in neon, called “golden arches” even at the design stage. … According to architectural historian Alan Hess, “Meston and Fish turned the crude half-circle suggested by Richard McDonald’s sketch into a tapered, sophisticated parabola, with tense, springing lines conveying movement and energy.”

Wedding arches and garden arches. The function of the wedding arch (aka an arbor) allows for arches stripped down to their barest essentials. No need to bear weight or draw public attention; all it has to do is stand upright for a brief period of time and be large enough for the wedding couple to stand under while exchanging their vows. Its function is to serve symbolically as the doorway to their new life together. Any number of shapes can serve this function: a large hoop, a full circle, a teepee-like inverted V (an open-bottomed triangle), a table shape of three lengths of wood, whatever. The wedding arch can be festooned with flowers, vines, or other decorative elements, or left completely bare. One minimal effort:

(#8) A movable wedding arch, which can be accessorized to suit the occasion

This is pretty much the minimal arch for gateway or garden purposes: just two uprights and a lintel (the cross piece), though to make it stable enough to stand, you also need footings, or more uprights, or both. The footings above are designed to make to whole thing movable, and they’re not terribly stable. For real stability (but immobility), you want the uprights sunk in concrete footers in the ground.

If you go for more uprights, for four uprights (and two lintels), you need something to knit them together, for stability: either rafters on top, at right angles to the lintels; or side braces, at right angles to the uprights; or both. Both of them here:

(#9) A wooden doorway / garden arch

This one can stand on its own four feet, so it’s easily movable. And the side braces have been elaborated into a visually pleasing checker patterns, which can also serve as trellises for climbing plants.

The structure can be made even more stable by providing further support through top braces — diagonal pieces, each affixed to an upright and a lintel, as here:

(#10) A very stable wooden doorway / garden arch, with top braces and with the side braces elaborated into intricate lattices

Then there’s my wooden arch, with the uprights sunk in concrete footings, parts of fencing serving as side braces, and considerable elaboration of the lintel-and-rafter structure.

(At the entrance to the parking garage for the complex, there’s a triple-sized version of my doorway arch, otherwise identical in details to it. It too was recently replaced, so now it’s vineless — but soon it will be covered again in wisteria vines.)

Any number of variables here. Note in particular the variations in the way the ends of the lintels and rafters are finished.

If you want to make your own, there’s a (UK) Gardening Data site on constructing a

Garden Arch: A simple timber arch in the garden is an ideal feature for helping to separate different areas or for training climbing plants.

(#11) A uprights; B lintels; C and D rafters; E top braces; F side braces; footings optional (the structure will stand on its own)

Garden arch and gateway arch.

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