Teaching with Architectural Drawings and Photographs

Architecture offers a unique entry point for better understanding a historical era. Early in my career as a museum educator, I worked with professional architects and engineers to teach middle and high school students. From these experts, I learned valuable techniques for analyzing architectural drawings and photographs.

North Elevation and Section – School House, South Pass Avenue near Jefferson Street, South Pass City, Fremont County, WY

Recently, the Picture This: Library of Congress Prints and Photos blog highlighted the addition of 400,000 new digitized records to the Historic American Buildings Survey/ Historic American Engineering Record/ Historic American Landscapes Survey (HABS/HAER/HALS) Collection.

Browsing this incredible online resource reminded me of how closely architecture and history are intertwined. Here are a few strategies for teaching with architectural drawings and photographs using examples from the HABS/HAER/HALS Collection:

Challenge students to hypothesize about a structure’s function based on its aesthetics. Students often observe aesthetic elements, such as patterns or shapes, without considering function. They may not think of design as problem solving. Encourage them to examine a structure’s form or aesthetics for clues about its intended use or functional requirements: for whom was the structure designed and to address what needs? What can we infer about the time period of its design or construction?

For example, if students observe the pattern of triangles that make up a truss bridge, prompt them to reflect upon why the designer/s chose the triangle (the strongest shape) for this structure. What type of bridge traffic—pedestrians, horses and wagons, cars, or trains—would require a heavy load-bearing design? What other factors may have influenced the bridge’s design (budget, location, available materials, structural technology)?

Use multiple architectural documents to help students visualize a structure, whenever possible. Envisioning a three-dimensional structure by observing a two-dimensional architectural drawing or photograph is not easy. Architects often create various drawings of the same structure to meet their different needs as well as the needs of clients and builders. Have students analyze a structure using at least two architectural drawings showing different perspectives or a drawing and a photograph.

For example, if students work in pairs or groups to analyze a selection of architectural drawings and photographs of a one-room school house, they may initially have difficulty interpreting their assigned document. Their observations will fit together like pieces to a puzzle later, however, when all of the documents are analyzed collectively.

Encourage students to learn about architectural terms and symbols by creating their own survey. When analyzing architectural drawings, students will quickly encounter terminology and graphic representations common to the profession that are not generally used. Rather than providing a list of terms with definitions prior to an architectural analysis activity, ask students to track their questions about any terms or symbols discovered during analysis for further investigation. 

For example, if students view architectural drawings from a survey of a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, they may notice graphic depictions indicating scale or labels indicating the type of drawing–floor plan, front or side elevation, section, detail, etc. Help students identify, define and then apply new terms and symbols by creating their own architectural survey (a collection of photographs and architectural drawings) to document a historic local building, perhaps their school.

What other strategies do you recommend to help students learn about the past using architectural drawings and photographs?

5 Comments

  1. Cheryl Best
    December 20, 2011 at 7:36 am

    I love this idea!! We could then compare and contrast our own school building and the design that influences us each day! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Denise Stuart
    December 20, 2011 at 10:26 am

    You could also extend this to important community building in your city or town. This is a good way to teach about forces, as well.

  3. Stacie Moats
    December 20, 2011 at 10:36 am

    Denise, I’m so glad you commented on teaching about forces like tension, compression, etc. I didn’t discuss it in the post but these resources and activities offer many opportunities for STEM learning.

  4. David Miller
    December 20, 2011 at 10:36 am

    One of my favorite classroom activities is to use use these architectural drawings in Google Sketch-up to make three dimensional models of them. These architectural drawings are ideal for this because they are perfectly drawn to scale. Best of all, both Google sketch-up and HABS/HAER/HALS are totally free!

  5. Stephen Wesson
    January 20, 2012 at 10:34 am

    As a former Library of Congress Teacher in Residence, David Miller has deep experience with the HABS/HAER/HALS collections and has many excellent teaching ideas for using them! Good to hear from you, DM.

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