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Discussion & learning activities

Use these activities before, during, or after your video-based lesson on Pittsburgh's Bridges and Buildings.

If you haven't read our Tips for using video in the classroom, we suggest you take a look there first, then come back here to choose materials to construct your lesson.

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Bridges and Buildings

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Learning Activities



What is the difference between an architect and an engineer?

How is an architect part engineer? …part social worker? …part artist?

In you opinion which aspect of architecture—structure, function, appearance—is most important? Why?


bullet Stressed Out

Ask students to describe the three main structural forces or stresses: compression, tension, and bending.

When have you experienced each of these forcesÐin gym class for example? [compression while lifting weights, tension while stretching or hanging from parallel bars, bending when doing leg raises or back hyperextensions]

What words or metaphors or similes can you think of to describe how you felt under those stresses? [like I was going to break in two, like a rubber band ready to snap, stretched, strained, squashed, pressed, pounded, crushed, mashed, etc.]

bullet In Control

Introduce each of the main structural elements that use and control these forces in a building: column, post and lintel, beam, arch, dome, frame, truss, cantilever, catenary. Diagram them on the chalkboard.

Buildings work not by fighting but working with and controlling stress. Which forces do each of these structural elements control? What building materials are suited to each structure?

Challenge them to describe, or , better yet, demonstrate how each of the structures works using paper, cardboard or other easy to find materials. They can even use their bodies for some! (See the "Body Building" activity.)

Ask students to find an example of each in the architecture of their school or immediate neighborhood. Alternative: Assign a homework project to bring back sketches of each structural element they find.

bullet Bridges

With the sound turned down, pause the Flying Off the Bridge to Nowhere tape at the various bridges and ask students to identify what type of bridge is being shown and tell how it works. Verify with the web site "Bridges & Tunnels of Allegheny County." Follow up with a "Bridge Building Contest."


bullet Type-Casting

Using the buildings in the videos as examples, discuss how different building typesÐhouses, schools, churches, offices, factories, stores, etc.--have been adapted to server their purposes. Use the pause button to stop the video at appropriate times to discuss a building in some detail.

Alternatively, point students to the "Building Types" web page (or print it out as a handout) and have them work in small groups to identify characteristics of each building that are a result of it's function.

As a class, make a table with building types on one axis and functional feature on the other. In the empty blocks of the grid, write how each building type adapts each feature to make it work for its purpose. [The first row is filled out as an example.]








Pitched to shed snow and rain

Pitched or flat depending on when it was built and how large the building is

Flat or slightly pitched with windows at the top for light and ventilation

Flat to allow as much storage or living space as possible on the upper floors

"golden age" 'scrapers tapered at top to allow light into the street. Topped with "gimmick" to draw attention

Space arrangement











bullet Floorplans follow Function

Floorplans are scale drawings of a building from above that architects draw to help them arrange space and direct traffic through a building. (Picture a dollhouse with its roof off.) You can often guess the plan of a building by looking at its exterior. After viewing one of the video segments, rewind to a view of a building and ask students to sketch its floor plan as they imagine it from what they can see in the video.

What things on the outside of the building are clues telling how the building is laid out on the inside?

How do people move around inside the building? How does the building's design help or hinder the flow?

Find a floor plan of the school and discuss the impact of the plan on school life. How possible is it to get from one class to another in time? Where are the bottle necks? How might they have been avoided? What changes to the plan would you recommend to improve the school's function?

bullet In the Zone

What are zoning laws? Why were they enacted?

How well do factories and houses mix? Schools and commercial districts?

Many of the older neighborhoods featured in the Pittsburgh History Series developed before zoning laws. What are these pre-zoning neighborhoods like as a result? [large areas of "mixed-use"] What are the advantages of a mixed-use community? What are the disadvantages?

City planners are now planning more mixed-use neighborhoods than zoning laws usually permit. For example, Washington's Landing combines housing, recreation, and light industry. Why? What uses mix well together? What uses don't go well together? Why? Where and how should the line be drawn between different kinds of land uses?



bullet Reaching for the Sky

Does the spire on a church have a function or is it there just for appearance? What about a church dome? Why?

What is the symbolism of a church spire? What is the symbolism of a dome? How is a spire different from a dome or vaulted ceiling in symbolism? How are they similar? How are they different in function? [Hint: picture removing the spire and dome--which buildings would still be usable? Domes are structures that serve the function of supporting a roof over a large space without columns in the middle to obstruct the view.]

What religions use each of those structures in their churches, synagogues, and temples? Why would they favor one over the other?

bullet Most Likely to Succeed

Discuss these questions while pausing the video at a particular building, while looking at any building in a photo or in real life, or after completing the Mainstreet Mural activity.

A "successful" building does its job well and looks attractive in its environment. How "successful" is this building you drew at doing its job? How well does it serve its function? How were people using the building? What works well and what doesn't work well?

What changes, if any, can you see have been made over the years? What future improvements would you suggest that the owners make to its appearance? Éits function?

What do you think works best about the appearance of the building? What do you think works least? How does the building fit in with the land and buildings around it? What styles of architecture can you identify in the mural's buildings?

bullet ...But I know What I Like

One of the fun things about architectureÐlike all the artsÐis that no one ever agrees about what makes a building look good! Play the segment of the Downtown tape about people's "love-hate" feelings toward Philip Johnson's PPG Place.

Discuss what the students think about its designÐdo they "love" or "hate" it? Why? What are their favorite things about its appearance? What are their least favorite things about its appearance?

Now look at several of the other buildings on the Downtown tape (Burke's Building, Park Building, Arrott Building, Benedum Trees Building, William Penn Hotel, Frick Building, Union Trust Building, Gulf Building, Koppers Building) and what students like and don't like about their appearance. It's OK to have very different opinions, but students must explain why they feel the way they do.


Architectural heritage

bullet Architecture Archaeology

What can older buildings tell us about the past?

How do they help us understand the people who built them originally or used them since then?

Why is it important to learn about the past? What can the past tell us about the future?

bullet Rescue/Recycle/Reuse

Do you think saving or reusing older buildings is important? Why or why not?

Why aren't more buildings rescued? What factors to decision makers have to keep in mind when deciding what to do with old buildings.

Why do you think St. Peter's Episcopal in Oakland didn't "make the grade"? Why does the old Beulah Presbyterian continue to survive? What is the difference between those two situations? Why did Station Square survive, but Jenkins Arcade was torn down at about the same time?

bullet Hometown Heritage

What are some of the special buildings in your community? [List on the chalkboard.]

What special events happened in these buildings? Whose story do they help explain? What is your best memory about each of these places?

Ask each student to write down the names of the three landmarks they think are most important. Collect the nominations and tally the votes on the chalkboard. Which landmarks does the class think are most important? Why are these landmarks important to your community?

If someone decide to tear down on of these most important buildings, what would you say or do to try to change their minds? What other uses would you suggest for the building to "recycle" it? This is called "adaptive reuse" and is how a train station came to be Station Square and a post office the Pittsburgh Children's Museum.

Learning Activities


bullet Bridge-Building Contest

Using everything you know about building structure, function, and appearance, build a cardboard bridge to compete in one of three categories:

  • Strongest Bridge
  • Best-Looking Bridge
  • Most-Ingenious Bridge

Calculate ratios to judge the strongest, most efficient bridge. Courtesy of PHLF.

bullet Body Building

Try these exercises to get a feel for how different structures control the stresses gravity exerts. Then challenge students to come up with demonstrations of flying buttress, a beam, etc. Courtesy of PHLF.


bullet Your Dream House

Ask students to think about their own houses or apartments. What are their favorite things about their houses? What would they like to change? What if they could go shopping for a house of their own? Would they want to build a brand-new house or would they shop for an older house? What are the advantages of each? Assign or let students choose to Shop for a dream house or Design a dream house.

"Design a Dream House" can be easily simplified as low kindergarten level. For older students, extend this activity into a math-lifeskills exercise by having them research and compare the actual costs of building or buying a house, then make a budget for buying and maintaining a house.

bullet Mainstreet Mural

Choose a street in your community with a variety of building types--main streets work great! Go out on "location" and have each student do a line elevation drawing of the façade of one building on the street. Include as much detail as possible (look at some architectural drawings as inspiration). As students draw each building part, ask them to think about the function it plays. Then, back in the classroom, create a Mainstreet Mural.

Discussion after the activity: How "successful" is the building you drew at doing its job? How well does it serve its function? What's working and what isn't working? How were people using the building? What adaptations does it look like have been make over the years (if any)? What improvements would you suggest for the future? What styles of architecture can you identify in the mural's buildings?

Now look at the whole collection of buildings in mural. What is the most common function of most of the buildings? What is second-most common? Is this true of your whole community or just this area? Are buildings of the same kind grouped together? Why or why not? How is your mainstreet the same as that in other communities? How is it different?

Courtesy of PHLF.


bullet Gargoyle Masks

Make paper sculpture masks of those fearsome make-believe beings. Courtesy of PHLF.

bullet Geometry on Firstside

Find examples of geometrical elements in the buildings of Firstside along Fort Pitt Boulevard. Courtesy of PHLF

bullet It's Debatable

What if Phillip Johnson and John Burgee, architects of PPG Place, debated the question "what makes a building attractive?" with the firm Harrison & Abramovitz, designers of USXTower and Alcoa Building? Have students research their design philosophies and some of their other designs, then role-play a debate and critique of each others' designs. Now try some time-traveling and have them debate some of the great architects of earlier generations: Henry Hornbostel (Grant Building), Frederick Osterling (Arrott and Union Trust Buildings), or H. H. Richardson (Allegheny County Courthouse)!

Architectural heritage

bullet Changing Scale

These interactive "worksheets" challenge students to use math to estimate and graph the growing scale of Pittsburgh's buildings from the 1760s to the 1980s. Extend the lesson by printing out the pages for each building and having students graph the height of the buildings or plot them on a timeline. This lesson is courtesy of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation -- for a set of printed activity cards, email PHLF's Education Coordinator or call 412-471-5808.

bullet Things that are Still Here

Nominate your most valuable neighborhood landmarks by submitting a photo or drawing telling us why it should be preserved. View our Gallery of Things that are Still Here.

For much more on this topic, send for Landmark Survivors, a beautiful set of teaching posters from Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation -- by emailing PHLF's Education Coordinator or calling 412-471-5808.

bullet If the Walls Had Ears

Choose one of the historic buildings from the series--whether still standing or not--research its history, and write a first-person narrative of a fascinating moment you imagine the building must have "witnessed." Though the stories can be fictional, they should be believable. Send us your stories for posting on the web!

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Bridges and Buildings