Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
Humans are imaginative and always have been. It's part of who we are. That being said, there have been more than a few instances in history where human ambition and imagination outpaced human knowledge and skills. Basically, people wanted to build things but didn't have the technical knowledge to do it.
In architecture, we see this all the time. Builders want to create something complex and technical, but can't figure out how to do it so they mimic it in appearance but not in function. For example, imagine being a medieval builder who wanted to emulate the grandeur of Rome. To do so, you could build an arcade, a series of arches supported by a row of columns. However, that's highly technical. If you can't quite figure it out, then just go with a blind arcade. It looks like a Roman arcade but has no structural function whatsoever. It's all the glory of Rome at a fraction of the price.
To understand the blind arcade, we need to talk about the architectural movement that spawned it, the Romanesque. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century CE, Western European architecture went through a period of stagnation. The technical know-how and advanced engineering skills of the Romans were forgotten. However, the memories of massive buildings and the glory of Rome were not.
From the 10th to 12th centuries, the Romanesque style emerged as the first concentrated architectural movement in Europe since the fall of Rome. Its central premise was to emulate Roman models and rediscover Roman architectural prowess. However, these medieval builders weren't able to fully figure out many Roman methods. As a result, the Romanesque style often captured aesthetic elements of Roman architecture but could not replicate their structural functions.
Identifying Blind Arcades
One such element was the Roman arcade. Roman arcades used lines of columns to support arches which had distinct structural functions and let ancient architects better distribute the weight of their structures. Romanesque architects wanted to capture this aesthetic, but knowledge of how to build and use structural arches had been lost. They were only just rediscovering it in this time, and Romanesque arches were way too thick and heavy to be freestanding.
So, Romanesque builders simply added arches onto the outside of an existing wall. That's what a blind arcade is. It has the elements of an arcade (rows of columns supporting arches), but is not actually built into the wall. It's added onto the surface of the wall as a decorative element and has no structural function in supporting the wall or distributing the weight of the structure. This also means that it has no openings, the way that traditional arcades do in between columns.
Blind arcades were very popular throughout Romanesque architecture and can be found in many cathedrals and castles of the time. However, they became less popular once builders figured out how to build and use freestanding arches again. Thus, blind arcades are not as prominent in Gothic architecture, although they do pop up as a throwback motif here and there. They also show up in some later neoclassical styles after engineers no longer needed the structural function of the arcade but still wanted the look. So, you may see blind arcades every now and then, and, if you do, then you know someone really liked Roman motifs but really didn't want to put in the efforts of Roman engineering.
In architecture, an arcade is a row of arches supported by columns. This was popular in Roman architecture, but the engineering knowledge on how to build and use them was lost after the 5th century CE. 500 years later, European builders of the Romanesque style started trying to emulate Roman motifs and rediscover lost knowledge. In their quest, they found ways to emulate Roman aesthetics without providing the same structural function. Thus, the arcade was reimagined as a blind arcade, added to the surface of a wall instead of structurally supporting one. They are purely aesthetic, which means that even though they're called blind arcades, they are only meant to be seen.
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