Friday, March 9, 2007

Great Buildings

“Noble life demands a noble architecture for noble uses of noble men. Lack of culture means what it has always meant: ignoble civilization and therefore imminent downfall.” – Frank Lloyd Wright
*Amazing Buildings by Philip Wilkinson (Dorling Kindersley)
Wonderfully illustrated book of famous buildings from around the world with lots of details and great cut-aways.

*Architecture: The World’s Greatest Buildings Explored and Explained by Neil Stevenson

*Buildings that Changed the World by Klaus Richard and Bernhard Graf

*Castles by David Macaulay

*A Child’s History of Architecture by V.M. Hillyer (Calvert School)

Great Buildings Online

Heritage Memo Game (memory game with great buildings and other famous sites around the world - available from Montessori Services )

A History of Architecture by Sir Banister Fletcher
A hefty tome, unlikely to be read cover-to-cover within a homeschool setting, but wonderful for its numerous historical drawings (including floorplans), comparisons of architectural styles and features an extensive glossary.

The World’s Greatest Royal Palaces by Marcello Morelli (VMB Publishers)

History and Writing

Every great building has a story and provides us with a tangible connection to events of the past. Along with the more artistic side of architecture appreciation, research saints and historical figures who are associated with each of the buildings and how their connection came about. Create a page about one of these stories for each building studied.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote:
“That we pray in the same churches in which our predecessors have been bringing their petitions and hopes before God over the centuries is not irrelevant. In St. Ludger’s Church in Munster it has always moved me deeply to know that this was the place where Edith Stein struggled with her vocation. And this is just a tiny excerpt from the history of faith and prayer and the history of sinners and saints preserved in our great old churches. They are also an expression of the identity of faith throughout history, an expression of the faithfulness of God which reveals itself in the unity of the Church.”

Writing/composition assignments can be designed to coordinate with these studies. Fictional narratives would also be appropriate.

Dig Deeper… Research the Church’s definitions of “major basilica”, “minor basilica”, “patriarchal basilica” and ”cathedral”. Explain each designation in detail.


Art appreciation is a natural part of this study because building is a form of art. Round Buildings, Square Buildings, and Buildings That Wiggle Like a Fish by Philip M. Isaacson makes an enjoyable and helpful introduction. Students can also make sketches of famous buildings and architectural styles and features for their notebooks. The following books may help:

How to Draw Buildings by Ian Sidaway
Draw 50 Buildings and Other Structures: The Step-by-Step Way to Draw Castles and Cathedrals, Skyscrapers and Bridges, and So Much More... by Lee Ames

Beautiful Architecture coloring books from Dover Publications are a great supplement to this study and recommended throughout this study…

British Castles
Castles of the World
Famous Buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright
Lighthouses of the World

The Medieval Castle
Traditional Houses from Around the World
The Victorian House
And more

Dover also offers cut-and-assemble cardstock books for creating replicas of a number of famous structures, including the Krak de Chevaliers and Caernarvon Castle in Wales.

Alternative Study Ideas

Instead of an architecture notebook (particularly appropriate for the younger set), make an architecture “lapbook” (see

Alternatively, information from this unit study could be simply used to supplement history or geography studies. I recommend a geography binder (with dividers for each continent) or a history binder (organized in a timeline fashion, with dividers for each century). We use zip-up binders continue adding material to the same binders over the course of many years.

Making an Architecture Notebook

Use a half-inch binder that allows you to insert a cover sheet. Have your children design a cover with illustrations of favorite buildings, styles or other related things. It can be done on the computer with pictures from the Internet or hand-illustrated.

Use at least five sheet-protector dividers (so the student can design a cover sheet for each section) for each notebook to cover the following topics:

Vocabulary Treasure Hunt


Great Buildings of the Ancient World

Great Buildings Around the Wrold

Sacred Architecture

Sub-dividers for the Great Buildings and Sacred Architecture sections (organized according to continent) can be made by illustrating a sheet of cardstock and using Post-It Brand index tabs for each section.


I recommend printing out or drawing a map for each of the notebook sections (and sub-sections) on great structures for marking the location of each structure. Free printable maps can be found at

Becoming acquainted with great buildings around the world is a great way to study geography.

Here are some of the buildings we have featured on this blog, organized by country or continent:

Holy land
North america
South america

Architectural Engineering (Math and Science)

*The Art of Construction; Projects and Principles for Beginning Engineers and Architects by Mario Salvadori (Chicago Review Press)

This is an incredibly engaging and informative beginner's guide to how architecture works and a great opportunity to see science and math applied to real life. It includes simple building projects and experiments to demonstrate architectural princilpes.

*Building Big with David Macaulay (DVD Set from PBS Video) and Building Big (book) by David Macaulay

This series includes individual shows on Bridges, Dams, Domes, Skyscrapers and Tunnels. Your kids will learn lots about the science, history and art of large structures. A few small scenes may be frightening or disturbing to younger or sensitive children.

Roman Arch Blocks (available from Michael Olaf)

The arch is an amazing and very essential aspect of architecture. This block set demonstrates the concept in a fun and memorable way - a great learning activity for preschoolers (and their older siblings!) that they will enjoy again and again.

Unbuilding by David Macaulay

This book, written in 1980, is somewhat painfully outdated since the fall of the World Trade Center, but is nevertheless a fascinating look at the "how" of architecture through a fictional story in which an oil tydcoon from the Middle East purchases the Empire State Building, disassembles it, and relocates it to the Arabian Desert.

NOTE: The Bridge segment of this study (and of the notebook) is particularly conducive to the study of science and math. Make individual pages with illustrated examples of each of the major types of bridges: post-and-beam, suspension, truss, cantilever and cable-stayed.


Start by setting up a Vocabulary Treasure Hunt in the first section of your architecture notebook. Put a copy of the word list in the binder and have your student get acquainted with the terms. Have them keep an eye out for these words over the course of this study and mark down where they found the term.

Depending on their age and ability, they can write out definitions as they come across them or look them up in a dictionary. Set a goal to find a certain number of the words and offer a treat or prize for reaching it.

Dig Deeper: Make individual pages that illustrate and define each vocabulary word for your notebook.

Architectural Glossary (watch for these words in the recommended books and movies – treating it like a “treasure hunt” would be fun! – if you’re looking them up in a dictionary, keep in mind that some of these have non-architectural meanings as well):

Rose Window

A very helpful glossary of Architectural Terms relating to Sacred Architecture, go to and click on “Art and Architecture” and then “Architecture Features”.


Most architecture books available today are written by non-Catholics and may contain biases against the Church. Though I've screened out a number of problematic books and skimmed all of these recommended books for problems, I was unable to verify every word of every book - particularly the large coffee table books - which are of interest primarily for th eir beautiful pictures and basic dates and other facts. Please supervise your children in their studies and double-check any facts that don't sound right.

An asterisk (*) indicates a resource that our family especially loves. A cross (+) designates Catholic sources. A few of the books are out of print or too expensive for most families to own, but I've included our favorites among these anyway, because you might be able to find them at your library or through a used book source.

Recommendations for Study

Architects fall into two major categories - design architects (those who plan what a building will look like) and architectural engineers (those who make the structure work according to the design). In this study, we'll try to include a fair amount of both disciplines as well as a general cultural appreciation of the subject matter. I would suggest organizing your study according to the interests of your child - have them study each area of this unit, but allow them to dig deeper into their favorite areas.

This unit can be studied on its own over the course of three or four weeks or you can dedicate one day a week to architecture for an entire year. I wouldn't expect to use all of the materials listed here. If you find yourself short on time, I would suggest focusing on the Architectural Engineering segment, the Sacred Architecture segment and one other segment of high interest to the students. Other segments - particularly Great Buildings of the Ancient World - could be studied at a different time.

Architecture, Culture and the Sacred (Alicia's Intro)

When I was a child, I didn't have much exposure to great architecture, but I remember being thrilled by reading about the Cliff Dwellings of Mesa Verde in my otherwise-hated Social Studies book: the only thing, in fact, that I now remember from six years of Social Studies textbooks.

Hearing even the name of the old Church where my grandparents were married in San Francisco in the 1920s - St. Paul of the Shipwreck - gave me a certain thrill; a connectedness to the past, a sense of mystery and the Sacred. Now I know enough to make further connections. That Church was Maltese and St. Paul was shipwrecked in Malta during his missionary journeys. What a fascinating thing to commemorate!

Architecture, like history, is filled with great stories - and children love stories! I believe children have a great capacity for mystery and a sense of the sacred. Instead of dull Social Studies textbooks that they will remember with loathing, why not give them a sense of beauty and the mystery of culture and the great things of the past?

I want our children to see in Sacred Architecture a manifestation of God's love. Though it is often argued that money spent on Church Architecture would be better spent on the poor, it is often the poor who are most in need of beautiful churches as a place of peace and refuge.

Building on Building (John's intro)

Hand a child two blocks and he will stack them up. Let him in a sandbox and he will build sandcastles. When that child grows up and takes a wife his concern is to put a roof over their heads - to gather and shelter his family. He longs to build.

But that is not enough. Study and thought on his materials and his goal lead, with ingenuity, to a better building. He builds well.

But that is still not enough. As he pours his labor into the work he determines that it would be more pleasing if it had a little flair. So he adds a little art. Pretty soon he is making materials say what is inside him. He gives the wood and the stone and the glass and plaster a soul - his soul. It tells stories. It inspires. It is now fitting to use the word Architecture.