In addition to building things that are, on the whole, practical and easy on the eyes, architects must also be mindful of the smaller structural elements that comprise their creations, the beams and trusses that hold everything together. Well, ideally they’re mindful of those smaller elements. After seven years of teaching structures to a mixed group of architecture and structural engineering graduate students at MIT, Paul Kassabian found that many of his future architects took a just-enough-to-get-the-homework-done approach to understanding those fundamental components. So he created an app to help them out.
The problem, Kassabian explains, is that most tools for teaching structures focus on analysis rather than design–the difference between being able to determine the stresses on a particular beam and knowing whether the situation calls for a beam in the first place. “Analysis is easier to teach,” Kassabian told me, “because it leads to a definite answer … but it’s mechanical and doesn’t provide real value to the design process.” Getting students to understand the broader behaviors of the structures–and thus having a better sense of when and where to use them–had always been a challenge, but Kassabian, a structural engineer himself, found that the straightforward visual aids he’d created to complement his lectures were surprisingly effective for teaching those concepts. So he resolved to share them with an audience outside of his classroom.
His first idea was a book, but he was worried that it wouldn’t be able to convey the interconnectedness between the discrete structures. “The analogy I use is that of primary colors,” he explained, “cables, arches, beams, etc., are the primary colors of structure and you can’t change that … but you can combine them into infinite colors and then make an infinite number of paintings from them.” The teacher was fixated on helping people understand not only the individual structures themselves but the relationships between them. As he was mulling this all over, a friend suggested that the images might make more sense as an app, and “Structures: a visual exploration” was born.
The app, available for iPhone and iPad, is a barebones set of images and animations that show the forces inherent in cables, arches, domes, columns, beams, and more. There’s no descriptive text and there’s not a whole lot of interactivity. But staying away from the slippery slope of “edutainment” was in many ways exactly the point. “If it was interactive and things changed as you moved the load around, the app is doing all the work for you,” Kassabian explained. “Just as when architects or engineers may hit ‘run’ on some analysis software and then believe the answers. You’re not asked to make any effort, so you don’t.”
Making sense of Kassabian’s app certainly requires a bit of effort, and I can’t imagine a layperson getting a whole lot out of it on their own. But the handful of five-star reviews that have already been logged by users suggest it’s just what some architects and engineers were looking for. “Nice animations, easy to understand diagrams,” the most recent review reads. “Wish I had the app 4 weeks ago when trying to explain bridges to a non-engineer friend.” Just what the creator of a teaching tool wants to hear.