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Perhaps if the Gothic architects of the Middle Ages, say those of Canterbury Cathedral, are retained to design a New York City apartment, they might decide to incorporate into their design some flying beams. Usually defined as horizontal bearing members, flying beams act as a bridge, spanning across and connected two disparate parts of a structure. In Canterbury, these bridging devices are called flying buttresses, architectural elements that add height and light through their support system. Nowadays, these aerial delights may or may not be structural, but they create a majesty of space that surely seems to have found inspiration in its Gothic ancestors. 


The modernist rendition of the flying beam may be integral to the structure or created for effect. In either dimension, these are subtle and interesting architectural features. This is because they act as dual agents in both bridging and dividing, connecting and separating. When acting as a bridge, they create a passageway or door opening by joining the two opposing walls at a somewhat lower height than the ceiling. In this instance, there is air both below and above the beam, giving an airy, light feeling to the space. As a divide, it serves a similar purpose by separating or puncturing space either for passing through or by lightening up a heavy volumetric wall. In either case, flying beams lend themselves well to the modernist home by introducing an ethereal quality. It is a heavenly lightness that evokes its own sense of piety.

Flying beams can be made of sheetrock, wood, painted cabinetry, glass, metal, even light. If Dan Flavin was an architect, his beams would surely be glass tubes filled with colored brightness. Usually, we see these beams as heavy wooden supports in traditionally styled rooms, oftentimes in kitchens and dens. In these instances, they add a warm, clubby feel. As glass, they appear highly transparent as the surrounding light passes through them. 

In their sheetrock form, flying beams tend to be pithy in substance. Spanning between walls, these usually hollow extensions can be rather narrow, say 4 x 4 or similar dimension. If one can imagine standing with arms widespread, each hand touching an opposing wall (think Vitruvian Man), one will get an image of how they perform. Riding high into space, high enough for people to walk under, they act as portals. Used artfully, they create clever datum lines, leveling the eye and establishing visual harmony around a room. Thus, if there is a room entry height of say 7’-6’ in one area, situating a flying beam at a similar height close by, creates visual continuity within that space. They connect elements at a similar height, thus drawing subtle yet strong relationships between them.


In addition to connecting walls within a contained area, flying beams also bridge different rooms to each other, threading continuity between spaces. Oftentimes, these beams are not at 180 degree angles to each other, but vary as the rooms’ relationships to each other differ. Here, they help create a sense of flow by tying the rooms together. From an artistic perspective, flying beams sculpt space, carving out voids to create highly imaginative empty spaces. Like the artist James Turrell, who uses light to fill not only an architectural void, but also to have the ethereal nothingness of light become, in its own way, a volume, the effect is quite similar. In both instances, the absence of volume becomes as important or an even more important element than the mass from which it is carved. Similarly, flying beams cut through empty space, carving out forms and shapes of different sizes and depth. 

Performing on the fly, architectural beams bridge, divide, line up, harmonize, carve and sculpt forms through space creating a light, bright, airy feel. A beautiful addition to any space, flying beams are elegant elements.

Twitter: @gailgreendesign