Design inspired by buildings: teaching resources

By Engaging Places | 7 October 2014

In the internet age it is all too easy for students to simply search online for design ideas, ignoring the wealth of inspiration to be found in the world around them.

Whittle & Glass bridge in Coventry

Whittle & Glass bridge in Coventry © Jaap Oepkes Photographer

The buildings and places around us can be a valuable source of design ideas - from shapes, forms and patterns, to materials, colours and textures. Engaging imaginatively with these elements helps students develop as creative thinkers and designers.

We have collated a list of activities, organisations and resources for you to use with your students in developing designs inspired by architecture and the built environment.

Teaching activities
Invitation only

Do you have an event coming up at your school – perhaps an open evening or prize giving?

Challenge the students to create an invitation to the event inspired by your school’s architecture and grounds. Ask them to take photographs and make sketches as a starting point for their design. They could create collages using textured papers, or use Photoshop to manipulate images and add lettering.

The Academy of St Francis of Assisi in Liverpool

The Academy of St Francis of Assisi in Liverpool © Dave Morris, CABE

A gift to remember
Ask your students to research the type of gifts that people buy to remind them of places they visit. What are the most popular products on sale in the gift shops of museums and historic houses?

Identify a historic (or contemporary) building in your town and ask the students to design a gift inspired by its architecture. Visit the building and record details in sketches and photographs, exploring shapes, forms, patterns, textures and materials. Back in class students can use this research to inform their design ideas.

Visit the Royal Academy of Arts online shop, which sells a range of contemporary gifts inspired by sculptural forms and materials associated with architecture.

The road from Memphis
‘Memphis is not new, Memphis is everywhere’, so said Italian architect Ettore Sottsass, who set up the revolutionary Memphis design group in the 1980s to create furniture ‘quoting from suburbia’.

Ask your students to research Memphis designs. Help them to identify the elements inspired by suburbia – garish plastic laminates, printed glass, neon tubes, sheet metals.

Can they design a chair inspired by suburban life today? What has changed since the days of Memphis?

The Design Museum website includes information about Memphis and images of some of its furniture designs.

A bollard and its landscaping detail

Blue Carpet in Newscastle © CABE

Clock works
Ask the students to design and make a working clock inspired by a famous building.

Provide images of distinctively shaped buildings, such as the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, the Sydney Opera House and the Gherkin. Students can use the shape of these buildings as a starting point for developing design ideas for their clock. Ask them to make a prototype in card before cutting and finishing the parts in acrylic.

For other building shapes, take a look at the collection of buildings and places reviewed on Engaging Places.

Urban fashion
In the words of designer Coco Chanel, ‘Fashion is architecture: it is a matter of proportions.’ Use this as the theme for a class fashion collection inspired by your nearest town or city.

Ask the students to collect photographs and drawings of striking buildings and, if possible, visit the buildings to record more details first hand. Encourage them to think about how they could incorporate the shapes, forms, colours and patterns of the buildings into their designs. Silhouettes inspired by towers? Prints inspired by brickwork or iron railings? Hats inspired by chimneys?

The Victoria & Albert Museum in London houses collections of both fashion and architecture. See if students can find similarities between the fashion and architecture of different periods.

Pink lift with red interior lighting

Pink lift with red interior lighting © School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, University of Newcastle

Helpful organisations and venues
The Design Museum

Design Museum is one of the world’s leading museums of modern and contemporary design. A regularly changing exhibition covers a wide range of themes, including product and graphic design, fashion, furniture, architecture and engineering.

Their online design library provides access to a fabulous archive of modern and contemporary design that you can use within the classroom.

The V&A Architecture Gallery
The V&A in London houses a comprehensive collection of architectural drawings, photographs and models that can be used as inspiration for design work.

Use the V&A’s online architectural style resource to explore a range of architectural styles in your class or visit the V&A architecture collection online.

V&A+RIBA Architecture Partnership
This partnership brings together RIBA’s drawings and archives collections and the V&A’s architectural drawings, photographs and architectural artefacts – all housed at the V&A, London. Teachers can utilise the study and teaching rooms and educational resources.

The Lowry
The Lowry in Salford Quays, Greater Manchester, is a centre for entertainment and arts education. An architectural landmark, it runs workshops on using views from in and around the building to improve students’ observational drawing skills, focusing on light, texture or scale.

Local architecture and built environment centres
There are architecture and built environment centres all around the UK. Contact the one nearest you to see how it can help you discover and explore buildings and places in your local area.

Find your local architecture centre now.

Steel staircase

Visit BALTIC (The centre for contemporary art) in Gateshead © School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, University of Newcastle

Teaching resources

RIBApix is a digital database of exceptional images of world architecture. Low resolution copies can be downloaded free of charge for use within your classroom or for student projects and research.

Images of England website
A from the turn of the 21st century produced by English Heritage. Use the website to view over 300,000 images of buildings and places in your area, from lamp posts and lavatories to historic houses and churches.

Great Buildings collection
The Great Buildings website showcases a world of architecture through photographic images, architectural drawings, building models, bibliographies of architects, commentaries and maps and timelines. A great resource to use for research in class.

Index of art historical sites
A digital imaging project that includes photographic images of sculpture and architecture from pre-historic to post-modern. More than 17,000 images are currently online for you to search through by country.

The Elements of Design
A unique sourcebook that looks at the whole environment – natural and manmade – in a new light. Everything from a wall in Ferrara to the bark of a plane tree in Paris is defined in terms of colours, textures, forms and shapes. Written by Loan Oei and Cecile De Kegel, published by Thames & Hudson.

Go back to the Graveney School case study.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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