Massive Marvels

Jun 08, 2022

The Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Sydney Opera House, the Colosseum, the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Giza… How and why were these huge structures built? 

I was thinking about these well-known but diverse icons as INDEPENDENCE DAY and BASTILLE DAY draw closer. When countries celebrate their history, culture, people, connections, and achievements, these structures often become symbolic. These sites attract tourists from all round the world. So how might we focus on these in lessons and activities with our children - as homeschoolers, classroom teachers or on weekends with our grandkids?

Curriculum Connections

In the primary years of education, explicit teaching and learning can take place in distinct subject areas like Mathematics, Science, Technologies and Visual Arts. However, more often than not, learning is transdisciplinary and one unit of work may incorporate many learning opportunities. 

A suggestion for a big idea: “Massive engineering marvels are driven by human desires to make bold statements.” This can draw on virtually all learning areas - not least of which might be expository or persuasive writing in English. In the Australian Curriculum, ‘Engineering provides a context for STEM learning’. The acronym STEAM adds in the ARTS - and aesthetic appreciation of STEM developments. We always end up getting arty! So let’s look at a bit of an overview. How might we separate but combine these studies?

Science - study of our natural and physical world

Technologies - use of scientific knowledge and engineering for practical purposes (creating systems and products)

Engineering - engagement in systematic design practice to achieve a specific mechanical or structural solution

Mathematics - the reasoning and use of numbers, shape, space with their quantities, relationships interwoven through science, engineering and technologies.

More specifically, the Technologies curriculum incorporates design, engineering and innovation. At the Year 5&6 level, students consider how people in design and technologies occupations address competing considerations reflecting on the importance of aesthetics, function and sustainability. Design Technologies also involve the investigation of materials, components, tools and equipment used in construction. As studies progress, students explore technological feats in construction methods related to buildings, structures and statues. They evaluate the impact of these innovations and the legacy they leave. 

Science and Mathematics help increase understanding of these structures and how they maintain their shape and strength. Year 4s look at forces in Physical Sciences. What makes bridges strong? How did the ancient Egyptians craft and move the massive blocks of stone to build the pyramids? 

Connections can also be made with History and Geography studies. How have structures like the pyramids and the Colosseum helped shape our understanding of ancient societies? What bold statement might they have been trying to make?

In Visual Arts students reflect on artworks from different cultures and societies, considering viewpoints and how choices of design and materials enhance the audience’s understanding of the artist’s intentions, or those of the architect or engineer. How do aesthetics and artistic design play a role in the production of these huge structures, or is purpose paramount? Do we find such massive structures visually appealing? Are they works of art?

Is bigger better?

From the dawn of time people have built huge structures often as a means of fortification or as a sign of wealth and power; for honouring their gods, goddesses, rulers or heroes; to provide access and connection to places; and as venues for entertainment or just to draw your attention.

For all these purposes, it would seem bigger IS better. The idea is to make a bold statement, to catch the eye from a distance, to glorify and aggrandise, to support/protect/shield/repel large groups of people - whole armies, or crowds/audiences/spectators. But big is harder to construct…

Some examples:

1. BRIDGES

There are many variations in designs that have evolved over time. Some that are famous include the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco (suspension), Sydney Harbour Bridge (through-type arch), and the Tower Bridge of London (hybrid of a drawbridge and suspension). This video could inspire a STEAM activity: What makes bridges so strong? The art element of this, like with many such lessons, comes in the design phase as well as the reporting and diagramatic representation of process to final production, AND aesthetic evaluation of the final product.

Arty Activity for kids: Draw then build a bridge out of straws or popsticks to create a short span, then the longest possible. Test it with different weights. What bridge design principles were used? What other materials were needed? Why? Draw and label your final product and explain why it ‘works’ or not and how things might be improved.

2. FORTIFICATIONS

How we protect ourselves from real or perceived dangers has dramatically changed over time. But there was a time when walls were the answer: castle walls, boundary walls, land and estate walls… Here I picture fortresses on cliff tops, towers with turrets, stone walls rolling over hills. The Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall in Britain were both built to claim territory and keep others out. They were patrolled so as to repel any potential take-overs. Castles were also built to protect the wealthier landowners, as much as to display their riches and power. 

Arty Activity for kidsKids love to draw castles - the tricky thing is getting the stone or brickwork to look realistic. Structurally, brick straight on top of brick does not hold together. Using interlocking building blocks is a great way to teach children the strength in design for creating strong foundations, brick walls and corners. The ‘Castle’ lesson in Artventure shows the basic drawing technique for this.

3. ENTERTAINMENT

The uses of arches and an overall ellipse shape in the Colosseum of Rome, are interesting examples of an understanding of scientific and engineering principles used to ensure strength in design enabling the construction of a massive arena in which all spectators have a view of the gladiatorial combats performed here.

Ellipses were also initially explored in the design of the Sydney Opera House but eventually the architect used the curves inherent in spherical shapes as the basis for the shells that form the roof. As a structure, what is the visual impact - considering its setting? Why has this been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

Arty Activity for kidsSketch a design of an amphitheatre that blends with the school playground, or backyard, or bedroom for an audience of peers or toys. Ensure everyone can see and hear a performance. Is the stage as important as the seating? Can it be made more visually appealing to attract an audience? Or construct this amphitheatre out of cardboard as a model, like professional architects often do.

4. CELEBRATION and POWER

The Pyramids of Giza are recognised as one of the seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Pyramids in Egypt tended to be tombs of pharaohs and a reflection of the reverence the Egyptians felt for their rulers' continued life after death. Or was it the pharaohs’ belief in their own importance and power? These structures used building blocks on a monumental scale often sourced great distances from the site of the pyramid. There is ongoing controversy over how the pyramids were constructed. Did they use ropes attached to sledges to haul these huge stones along tracks of wooden logs? Were stones built on site - cast like concrete rather than carved blocks? Did they use levers and ramps to ‘lift’ the stones from tier to tier? Were water shafts used? Or were combinations of these techniques used? Still standing after 4000 years, one marvels at the enduring ‘life’ of these structures long after the death of those hoping to be immortalised. 

Statues in ancient times were often created to honour gods and goddesses or rulers (a sculpture of a living creature - real or imagined). The Statue of Liberty, a modern day sculpture in New York, draws on some of this history. Built in France and gifted to the people of the United States, it was intended as a symbol of freedom, hope and friendship to help celebrate American Independence. It’s fascinating delving into the design and construction of the Statue of Liberty, a huge sculpture made from iron scaffolding and a copper skin which gradually became green as the copper reacted to exposure and weathering. How were ideas of female figures and Roman goddesses relevant? Then there’s the crown with seven rays depicting the seven seas and the seven continents: a representation of Liberty enlightening the world. What might people be thinking when they see this massive statue as they arrive in New York?

Just as with other huge engineering feats, the design of the Eiffel Tower also includes arches. If you watched the video clip on Bridges, you’d have seen similar uses of trusses and triangles helping provide strength for these massive structures. Intended to be the centrepiece for the World Fair, Paris in 1889 this structure caused huge division between the engineers and the artistic community of the time. It was seen by some as an unattractive monstrosity. This could make for a robust class discussion, even a formal debate - ‘Aesthetics are just as important as engineering integrity’.

Arty Activity for kidsCreate a poster or pamphlet to advertise or promote celebrations for America’s Independence Day or France’s Bastille Day. Use the art lessons in Artventure to draw the statue or the tower.

Visual Perspectives

Whether our look at these massive marvels is part of an educational study or while on a vacation, seeing these structures with our own eyes is the best. With opportunities to travel, both locally and globally, we invariably want a photo of what has captured our imagination. A photo to share with family and friends provides lasting memories. But drawing and painting can implant the details, the contrasts, the colours, the subtleties that are often missed with just a glance, a snapshot. Artworks may also be part of a unit of work, as suggested above. To help, there are art lessons in the Artventure library: www.artventure.com.au. All the structures mentioned in the opening line of this blog are there. Alternatively, you could search for ‘tower’, ‘bridge’ or ‘castle’, as examples. Maybe you can find a BIG structure near you and try drawing it: the Big Banana, the Big Lobster, the Big Koala…

Erica 
Teacher and Artventure blogger