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The polygonal arch bridge

J. Radi and A. Kindij

Faculty of Civil Engineering, University of Zagreb, Croatia

ABSTRACT: In this paper the procedure for establishing the funicular shape of a polygonal
(deck-stiffened, inverted Langer) arch will be discussed. In this type of structure the deck is
resisting any tendency to bend or buckle. So the deck is thicker than the arch which carries only
pure compression. The funicular shape of an arch coincides with its line of trust which is the set
of resultants of the trust and weight each part of an arch imposes on the next lower one. In this
way all sections along the axis of the arch are in direct stress and the material required to
construct the arch is minimized. For a particular set of loads the arch profile in direct stress is
called the funicular arch. The procedure starts with imagining that the loads carried by the arch
are applied to a cable. Usually this shape is determined for the dead load. The designer can
automatically generate a funicular shape for the loads. If the cable shape is turned upside down,
the result is a funicular arch. This type of structure was developed by the Swiss engineer Robert


In construction of structures and bridges designed to fulfil contemporary needs the issues and
conditions of functionality, rationality and aesthetics must be taken into account. In the
construction engineering the main goal is to appease these three main criteria.
In this view arch is the classical structural shape of bridges and the arch is an important main
bearing element inherent in all kinds of structures during thousands of years since the beginning
of the history of structures. During all of this time the arch had a major impact on the
technology of structures both as a formal and functional element. But this leading role of the
arch is diminishing with time. The main reason lies in the contemporary codes in structural
engineering which favour the implementation of standardized solutions and the development of
materials with high tensile strength.
To enhance the competitiveness of arches which are attractive and economically reasonable
structures compared with other types of structures it is necessary to conduct the whole lifecycle
analysis of the structure. This methodology is based on the analysis and systematization of the
history of the arch development in terms of favourability and innovativeness of the construction
procedure. In this paper it will be done for the polygonal arch bridge.
The arch was the first structural element which enabled bridging wide and deep gaps. Today
the customary arch construction method for bridges is the free cantilevering method. But still
for all arch types there is the possibility to improve the economy with the development of new
materials and contemporary analysis and construction methods.
In contemporary conditions of structural concepts, material quality and construction methods
arches are competitive for spans approximately between 40 m and 400 m. With certainty arches
can be more economical in comparison with other structural types in terrain classification with
steep valleys, deep canyons and straits with excellent bearing ground. Most commonly arches
are chosen for spans from 50 m up to 250 m.
The essence of an arch is that ideally there should be no bending, except under live loads. It
should be completely in compression. This is the reason why an arch can be made from
materials with low tensile strength such as masonry and concrete.
The rise to span ratio, f / L, has significant impact on the stresses and deformations from
shrinkage, creep, temperature changes and displacements of arch abutments, Fig.1. Arches with
small rise to span ratio are more prone to this actions. For such shallow arches the long term


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deformations and the deflection angle at the crown are relatively high and need to be carefully

Figure 1 : The horizontal force a the arch abutment depending on the rise to span ratio, f / L


The diversity and the combination of arch systems is the result of diverse design and
construction considerations but also from the adjustment to certain outside conditions. Basically
the possible arch bridge systems given in Table 1 can be classified in two major groups: simple
end complex.
Simple arch bridge systems are those where the loads in the main span are transferred by the
arch, and all the other structural components have only a secondary part, mainly to transfer the
forces to the arch. Like fixed, two-hinged and three-hinged arches.
The complex group includes all the systems where the forces are carried together by arch and
roadway structure or other parts of the structure. In this way arch, girder, piers, walls, stays
and/or the fill comprise and unique complex system. Like the polygonal arches.
In the complex system of the polygonal arch the arch, piers or walls and the roadway
structure comprise a frame system. The roadway structure is much thicker than the arch,
because the deck is resisting any tendency to bend or buckle, leaving the arch chord to resist
pure compression. In this way the roadway structure is thinner than a simple beam across the
same gap, because its weight is supported by the arch, and the arch can be much thinner than a
simple arch, because it is stiffened by the beam.
Over the arch the roadway should cross over five spans minimally otherwise some simpler
system like portal frame with inclined legs should be chosen.
The bending stresses in the area of the arch (between the arch abutment piers) comprise two
parts, first the bending moments in the girder for the unmovable system, and second the frame
bending moments from the system displacements.
The bending moments in the girder can be easily determined because the girder is behaving
like a continuous beam.
The arch displacement caused by the settlement is resulting in bending moments both in the
girder and in the arch. This happens even for the funicular arches. The frame bending moments
are caused by the displacements from the live-loads. The bending moments in the arch can be
accepted with smaller amount of reinforcement compared to the girder due to the natural
longitudinal force in the arch.
The main advantage of a stiff arch is the possibility to remove the temporary stays or the
scaffolding immediately after the arch is finished. While for the slender and light arches the
advantage is in the simpler temporary stays or lighter scaffolding but for the small carrying
capacity and stability of the arch the auxiliary system needs to be active until the roadway
structure is finished. In the case when the arch is constructed on scaffolding the costs rise
because of the longer implementation of the scaffolding. While the free cantilever method with

J. Radi and A. Kindij


temporary stays is somewhat advantageous because after the arch is finished it is irrelevant at
what time the stays are removed. The disadvantage lies in the position of the stays which can't
be placed in the simplest cross section because they are active until the roadway is finished
which needs to be taken into account with adequate clearance for the deck construction.
Table 1 : Schematicall representation of arch bridge systems
Sketch of the arch bridge system

Arch bridge system / optimal span

fixed arch / 40 300 m



presjeci 1-1




elastically fixed arch / 40 150 m

two-hinged arch / 80 200 m

It > Ip or I = const.
three-hinged arch / 60 120 m

fixed arch with the deck at intermediate level

/ 80 200 m

arched walls (discs) / 40 100 m

polygonal arch (deck-stiffened arch, inverted

Langer) / 30 280 m

Usually the deck girder is designed with slenderness, (l / h), between 12 and 15. In this way it is
ensured that the girder can take the same amount of frame bending moments as at the
approaches behind the arch abutment piers. The rest of the frame bending moments will go into
the arch which can be used to calculate the lowest necessary arch stiffness.
The arch abutments position is mainly determined by the topography, geology and the
construction conditions. Because of the better esthetical appearance the line connecting the
abutments should be parallel with the roadway, Fig.2. Above the arch abutment usually the arch
abutment piers are foreseen. In this way one foundation is constructed for both, and the vertical
force from the pier is swerving the longitudinal arch force and is transferred steeper into the
bearing ground meaning the horizontal component of the arch force is smaller, Fig.3.


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Figure 2 : The position for the arch abutments for sloped grade line





Figure 3 : Detail of the arch abutment force with the vertical load from the pier


Robert Maillart's way of designing the elegant thin concrete arches designed from 1924 to 1934
was controversial. He started from a clear understanding of structural behaviour, an designed
these arches so that almost all the live-load bending is taken by the stiff deck, thus leaving the
thin arch to carry little more than axial compression.
He rejected the complex mathematical analysis of loads and stresses that was being
enthusiastically adopted by most of his contemporaries. At the same time, he also eschewed the
decorative approach taken by many bridge builders of his time. He resisted imitating
architectural styles and adding design elements solely for ornamentation. Maillart's method was
a form of creative intuition.
His design method of slender polygonal arches and stiff girders has two assumptions:
(1) there are no bending moments from live load in the arch.
(2) girder bending is numerically identical with the bending of the not-stiffened arch.
With the first assumption that under live loads there are no bending moments in the arch he
assumed that the bending stresses in the arch from the live load are so small that they can be
ignored. The result is that the girder has to take all the bending from the live load.
With the second assumption the girder bending is numerically identical with the bending the
arch would have to take were it not stiffened with the girder. These two assumptions enabled
Maillart to design his structures and determine the forces in the arch and in the girder meaning
determining the compression stresses in the arch concrete and the quantity of reinforcement in
the girder.
To ensure that these two assumptions have credibility the design possibilities are severely
restricted, meaning that both sprung from Maillart's chosen shape of the structure. For any other
type of structure this calculation would not make much sense, but in this case it is the perfectly
logical approach.

J. Radi and A. Kindij


His design assumptions fit with the chosen shape, and describe the way the structure transfers
its loads. His idea is different from the usual assumption that the shape should follow the forces.
For this system the forces are traced from the chosen shape.
The polygonal arch caries the uniform loads from the dead weight and live loads only with
longitudinal forces, Fig.4. The forces are transferred to the arch abutment and the tangential
reaction force at the fixed end. Uniform load from the girder, wgr, is transferred to the arch
trough vertical longitudinal forces F in each vertical cross-wall pier at distance a, Fig.5. The
polygonal arch transfers these vertical loads into oblique longitudinal forces N through the arch
towards the abutment. The sloped structural elements accept the force F in the nods where two
arch elements with different slopes and the vertical pier meet. This is the mechanism through
which the force passes from the girder, to the piers, to the arch and the arch abutment without
bending moments in the arch.


Figure 4 : Longitudinal section of the polygonal arch with the stiff girder

Maillart considered one thing in relation to another and he considered the whole, in this way he
arrived at new principles in construction so that one is repeatedly surprised by the novelty, and
his originality and rich imagination. By conceiving structures as a whole, Maillart broke away
from the atavistic construction principles of 'bearing and loading'. On the contrary he respected
the function of every element of the structure, trough the monolithic forming of the material. In
his bridges, the roadways or railways are no longer loads supported by arches, they become
integral parts of the bridge itself serving a constructive function so that there is a great saving of
material and a greater degree of safety. His structures are characteristic trough their absolute
economy of means and trough his will to utilize every constituent part to the ultimate.
When the uniform live load q is placed only on one half of the arch length the former
described load bearing system will not activate. In both cases the force follows the same route
through the pier and the arch but as there is no load on the other half of the arch the side with
the load will displace downwards and the free side will displace upwards, Fig.6.

Figure 5 : Detail of the load transfer from the girder trough the piers into the arch


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stiff arch


deck-stiffened arch

Figure 6 : Behavior of the stiff and deck-stiffed arch for half span arch load

When this happens the girder follows the downward movement because of the fixed connection
with the piers and the arch. While the other side of the girder deflects upwards the girder will
oppose this movement according to its stiffness. For slim girders this resistance is negligible and
the vertical displacement is equal to the vertical displacement of the arch. The arch is
displacing to compensate for the half span arch load. For the deck-stiffened arch the resistance
is much higher so that while the arch is displacing upwards the girder is reacting and with forces
in vertical elements stiffens the arch. In this way the vertical deflection is lessened considerably.
The arch can be considered to be loaded on both sided with vertical forces in the piers. In this
case the load is q / 2, and the girder is transferring the vertical load as shown on Fig.4. The result
analysis is a symmetrically loaded arch with longitudinal forces only, and asymmetrically
loaded arch with bending moments only. This simplified example shows the Maillart's design,
He calculated the bending on the arch and applied this values on the girder. This procedure was
used for the design of Valtschielbach and Schwandbach bridges.


The material required to construct an arch is minimized when all sections along the axis of the
arch are in direct stress. For a particular set of loads the arch profile in direct stress is called the
funicular arch. By imagining that the loads carried by the arch are applied to a cable, the
designer can automatically generate a funicular shape for the loads. If the cable shape is turned
upside down, the designer produces a funicular arch. Since dead loads are usually much greater
than the live loads, a designer might use part of them to establish the funicular shape.



















Figure 7 : Establishing the shape of the funicular arch


J. Radi and A. Kindij


The optimal arch shape is chosen in such a way that for the dead load the bending moments in
the arch are smallest as possible, while for the live load some degree of eccentricity of the direct
stresses are allowed. The main goal is to exclude tensile forces on the borders of the cross
section, allowing them only for exceptional loads.

tension on
one side



Figure 8 : The stresses in the arch

The optimal funicular shapes for uniform loads are:

(1) catenary shape - for uniform load along the axis of the arch shape
(2) parabolic shape - for uniform load along the arch span.


Analysing the latest results of the scientific research at the Chair for Bridges at the Civil
Engineering Faculty in Zagreb and the latest achievements in arch bridge construction in
Croatia and around the world we concluded the following:
(1) the joint operation of the arch and the deck should be actively sought and used during
construction and service of the arch bridge
(2) the arch construction must be as rational as possible - with the earliest possible closure at
the crown.
We think of these two conclusions as of positive criteria for the arch design, stress efficient
cross section design and material appliance in compliance with the logic of this bearing
In this analysis one could not exclude the Maillart's polygonal arches which are more than
just aesthetically pleasing but technically unsurpassed. This system can be effectively adopted
even today with some improvements in chosen composition of materials and modernized
construction procedure.
Radi. J., 2009. Introduction to bridge construction (in Croatian), Zagreb.
Radi J., Kindij A. and Mandi A., 2008: History of concrete application in development of concrete and
hybrid arch bridges, Proceedings of the Chinese-Croatian Joint Colloquium, Long Arch Bridges,
Brijuni islands, Croatia, July 10-14, 2008, p.9-118.
Radi J., 2007. Concrete bridges (in Croatian), Zagreb.
Billington D.P., 2000. The Revolutionary Bridges of Robert Maillart, Scientific American, July 2000,
Bill M., 1969. Robert Maillart, 3. Auflage, Les Editions d'Architecture Artemis, Zrich.