The flying buttress was used most prominently in the cathedrals of the European Gothic period, which flourished in the 12th- to 15th-century. In an effort to thrust their cathedrals closer to Heaven, architects developed the flying buttress to divert gravity stress away from the walls, meaning the buildings could be taller, wider, and for the first time feature prominently large windows to bring in the Light of God. Prior to this innovation, walls were necessarily thick and solid to hold up the building's heavy roof.

During the High Victorian period of Gothic Revival, structures resembling flying buttresses were added to new buildings, but most architects of the time did not understand the physics behind the "decoration", and in most cases the flying buttresses were decoration only, holding little to none of the building's stress.

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