Physics in Architecture

Why doesn’t the Leaning Tower of Pisa fall down? If you’ve ever seriously considered the answer to this you probably have enough interest in, and understanding of, physics to.…

Why doesn’t the Leaning Tower of Pisa fall down? If you’ve ever seriously considered the answer to this question you probably have enough interest in, and understanding of, physics to become an architect. Despite a widespread belief that architects need exceptional skills in physics (and mathematics), in day-to-day practice this is not strictly speaking true.

In this article, we’ll look at how architects really use physics, why physics is so important when we build, and whether you’ll need to study the subject at school and university to have a successful career in architecture. We’ve also included ten inspiring examples of buildings that were only made possible by their architects’ obsession with what is physically possible.

(If you’ve never googled the reason why the Leaning Tower of Pisa doesn’t fall down: it’s because it was built on soft soil. While this has allowed the tower to tilt, it has also absorbed underground vibrations caused by two world wars and numerous earthquakes, keeping it sort-of upright since 1178!)

Is physics an essential part of architecture?

It’s fairly obvious that physics is an essential part of architecture; without it, buildings would be collapsing all around us on a regular basis. You only have to watch a toddler attempting to stack large blocks on top of small ones to see that this is true.

However, it is not necessarily the case that an in-depth knowledge of physics is essential for architects.

Architecture is both a science and an art, and it follows that different people’s strengths will lie in different areas. You may be more into shape and form than motion and force – and that’s OK. Yes, architects need a basic understanding of the laws of physics, but in the real world complex scientific calculations are more likely to be made by engineers. A fear or dislike of physics shouldn’t put you off applying to architecture school.

How is physics important in architecture?

The great thing about physics within architecture is that it’s always used to solve practical problems. You won’t need to do abstract calculations, as you may have done at school.

Architects use physics to make sure that buildings and other structures are safe, so during an architecture degree you’ll be introduced to physical concepts in quite a natural and grounded way. Some of the key concepts you are likely to meet include:

Tension and compression

Tension refers to forces pulling away from each other; compression refers to forces pushing together. Some materials are better at handling tension (think about a rope being used in a tug of war) while others cope better with compression (imagine a piece of blu-tac or plasticine).

It’s essential that architects use the right materials to avoid structures snapping and buckling, and putting people in danger. Similarly, they need to understand how individual elements such as arches use compression to add strength to buildings. 

Loads

Loads are forces that cause buildings to move or feel other kinds of stress. They are usually split into two types: live loads (which change over time, e.g. the number of people using a building) and dead loads (which are fixed, e.g. the weight of the building’s materials).

You will also hear loads being described as either horizontal / lateral (caused by natural things like wind and earthquakes) or ‘vertical’ / gravitational. 

Thermodynamics

Architects are responsible for making sure heat goes to the places where it’s needed, and stays away from the places where it’s not. To do this, they must understand a little about heat transfer (by conduction, convection, radiation and phase change – all of which you probably encountered in school physics lessons).

Ensuring that a buildings don’t get too hot or cold is not only a matter of  occupants’ comfort; it also protects against things like damp and mold that are caused by condensation.  

Daylighting

Daylighting is the use of natural light to illuminate buildings. It’s an important skill for architects to learn, although a specialized lighting designer will be responsible for any advanced calculations in this respect. Daylighting has been shown to improve the physical and mental health of buildings’ users, and of course it saves energy too.

Vibrations

As we saw above in the example of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the absorption of vibrations can make a huge difference to whether a building stays up or falls down! But there are lots of other reasons why architects need to think about vibrations: if heard and/or felt they can irritate a building’s users, and they can additionally damage a building’s fixtures, fittings and contents over time.

There are many more physical concepts you are likely to encounter during your degree (usually in modules with the word ‘structure’ in them), but unlike engineers you won’t need to know them inside out. 

Do architects need to be good at physics?

They need to pass the modules of their degree that contain physics components. Beyond that, architects don’t need to be science whizzes because engineers and other specialists are responsible for detailed calculations. 

So can I study architecture if I’m bad at physics?

You can probably study architecture if you’re average at physics, but not if you’re actively bad. Luckily, being bad at physics isn’t the same thing as being bad at singing or dancing –most people, if they study physics, will eventually improve.

You just need to put the hours in, even if you don’t really enjoy it. And once you’ve got that architecture degree in your hand, you can worry about it much less.

Do universities ask for high school qualifications in physics?

They might. In the US, it’s a good idea to make physics (and/or calculus) one of your electives at high school; some schools will require this, whereas others may just request it. In the UK, it’s often said that the ideal A-levels / Highers are math’s, physics and art & design, but you can apply to an architecture degree with others.

If you really don’t want to study physics at a higher level, make sure you’ve got a good grade at lower level or can otherwise prove that you’ll be able to cope on an architecture course. Wherever you live, if you have a particular university in mind, be sure to check their entry requirements as early as you possibly can!

Examples of physics in architecture

The following are some examples of buildings and structures around the world that rely on advanced physics for their impressive appearance. You might want to glance back at these for motivation when you’re agonizing over your physics homework – or start working on your own bucket list!

1. Habitat 67, Montreal, Canada

Habitat 67, a favorite of modernists everywhere, was originally designed for the World’s Fair in 1967. The housing complex consists of 354 concrete blocks, joined together in what appears at first to be a haphazard arrangement. Moshe Safdie designed Habitat using Lego when he was still a Masters student, but it remains an inspiration for high-density housing more than five decades after its conception. 

2. The Dancing House, Prague, Czech Republic

Vlado Milunić’s Dancing House – sometimes called ‘Fred and Ginger’ after Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers – was built between 1992 and 1996 when deconstructivism was at its peak. The two-part building consists of a rock tower with unevenly spaced windows (Fred), and a glass tower (Ginger) that narrows as it ascends. The two appear to be swaying together, providing a sharp contrast to the classical architecture of the surrounding area.

3. Wonderworks, six locations within the USA

The Wonderworks amusement parks are buildings that seem to have been turned upside down, with pediments seemingly driven into the ground and columns crumbling down above. (Inside, visitors can experience simulated hurricanes and earthquakes.) The original park, in Orlando, was opened in 1998 and designed by Terry O Nicholson.

4. Bibliothèque Tête Carrée, Nice, France

The controversial ‘Square Head’ library (2002) in the south of France is part building, part sculpture, co-designed by Sacha Sosno, Francis Chapus and Yves Bayard. Tête carrée can be an insult, referring to ‘thinking inside the box’ or to English speakers who refuse to learn French – but love it or hate it, there is nothing in the world quite like this library building. At night, the building’s seven store’s are articulated by a lighting scheme by Yann Kersalé.

5. Tagasuki-an, Nagano Prefecture, Japan

Tagasuki-an – ‘a tea house built too high’ – is the work of notoriously eccentric Teronobu Fujimori, completed in 2004. Traditionally, visitors to a Japanese tea house bend down as they enter, but Fujimori inverts this convention by forcing them to climb a ladder instead. The small house is six meters above the ground, supported by two load-bearing chestnut trees.

6. The Sharp Centre, Ontario College of Art and Design, Toronto, Canada

The 2004 Sharp Centre is instantly recognizable as a Will Alsop design: a white cuboid with pixelated windows that appears from a distance to be floating over the city, but which is actually held 26 meters aloft by slender, brightly-colored steel columns. Though its elevated form creates a practical and sheltered outdoor space below, RIBA has called Alsop’s building ‘a little insane’.

7. Krzywy Domek, Sopot, Poland

Krzywy Domek translates as ‘Crooked House’, and though the building is not actually a house (it forms part of a shopping center) it certainly has little time for straight lines. Architects Szotyńscy & Zaleski were inspired by the fairy tale illustrations of Jan Marcin Szancer, and the building appears as if viewed through a funhouse mirror. It opened in 2004.

8. The Balancing Barn, Suffolk, England

In spite of its location, this holiday home was designed by the Dutch firm MVRDV in 2010. It has an improbably cantilevered form – of its 30-metre length, half is suspended over the hill below – with reflective steel cladding and a glass floor. The building takes inspiration from local vernacular forms, but nobody is likely to confuse the Balancing Barn with a genuine agricultural building! There is even a swing hanging from the extreme end of the cantilever.

9. Museum of Tomorrow, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

This neofuturist museum, designed by Santiago Calatrava and opened in 2015, invites the public to learn about sustainable futures. It uses 40% less energy than traditional buildings and was described by the Guardian as ‘a giant air-conditioning unit’, though the architect insisted he was inspired by the bromeliads in Rio’s Botanical Gardens.

10. Robinson Tower, Singapore

Architects Kohn Pedersen Fox appeared to hack Robinson Tower (2019) in two halfway up, separating the shopping center below from the offices above. Nestled into the ‘hacked’ space is a garden with a view of the marina, and the skyscraper’s angled facades reference the roof of nearby Lau Pa Sat Market (1824).

FAQs

I really hate physics. Should I forget about studying architecture?

No – unless you have a lot of other career options on the table that appeal just as much. You’ll need to do reasonably well in high school physics, and you’ll need to learn about physical concepts at university. But once you’re a practicing architect, you may find the subject comes up surprisingly little. 

I really love physics. Am I meant to be an engineer and not an architect?

Do you love physics and design equally? If you find yourself drawn very strongly to the mathematical and scientific side of architecture, it’s possible you’d be happier as an engineer. But if you also love to draw and make things, architecture is probably your dream career!

It’s worth remembering that you can get a Bachelor’s degree in architecture and then switch to a Master’s in engineering, if you find the creative side doesn’t excite you as much as you thought it would. Unfortunately, the reverse (getting a Bachelor’s degree in engineering then switching to a Master’s in architecture) isn’t possible in the UK, though it may be in the US. 

Will physics be a compulsory part of my architecture degree?

You’ll certainly be required to take modules about ‘structures’ or ‘structural design’ which will contain concepts from physics. However, these will be applied to work you’ll have to do in the real world; you won’t have to re-live your dreaded high school classes.

On the other hand, if you’re especially keen on physics, you may be able to choose modules that focus on the engineering side of things rather than the aesthetic side. 

How can I get better at physics?

If you’re really struggling, and getting a personal tutor isn’t an option, there are lots of online courses in physics that don’t cost a penny, and plenty of practice workbooks available.

If motivation is an issue, consider buddying up with another student from your physics class and tackling homework tasks together.

Summary

A lot of students are put off by the thought of physics, but practicing architects don’t necessarily use it that much. You’ll need to do reasonably well in the subject at high school, and you can’t duck out of physics altogether during an architecture degree, but after that you’ll potentially be free of it.

And you might even find, once you know more about its real-world applications – from keeping buildings cool to giving them the wow factor – that you grow to love it.

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