Theater Open Today: 10:15 AM - 4:15 PM

Building Blocks for the Future

October 30, 2023

by Amanda Miller, Tinkering Coordinator, Imagination Station

Architects and engineers solve problems. And each of them solves problems differently. That’s why when your little architect or future engineer steps into Imagination Station we encourage them to problem-solve and design the future.

At Imagination Station, we have several exhibits that help foster interest in architecture and engineering. Our Catenary Arch, Shake Table and KAPLA Blocks are all exhibits in our building that challenge you to test your skills. In fact, designs from architects and engineers are always a work in progress. You grow your problem-solving skills if your design does not work as intended or if it does work, you learn that designs can always be improved.

Here at Imagination Station, architecture and engineering are all around.

“Ask ten engineers for the best orbit of a particular spacecraft and you’ll get ten different ideas.” - Dario Izzo.

Catenary Arch

A catenary arch is the ideal arch shape if the only weight you are to bear is the weight of the arch itself. A catenary is formed by a chain hanging down in the middle with support on both sides – creating a very stable structure. If you flip the catenary upside down you have a catenary arch!

At Imagination Station, our catenary arch exhibit has numbered pieces for you to start building your arch. When you get to the center block or the keystone all of the other blocks will be holding it up and the arch will stay. Catenary arches are strong structures because they redirect the vertical force of gravity into compression forces that press along the curve, holding the arch’s building blocks in place.

A great example of a catenary arch is the 630-foot Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. This is a great example of engineering but also of the teamwork that engineers have to do. They use their math skills, communication skills and knowledge of science to work and create innovative structures.

“Architecture is invention” – Oscar Niemeyer

Shake Table

If you’re looking to test the strength and stability of your own designs, our shake table exhibit helps you dive into the process. Here, you try to build a structure that withstands an earthquake's powerful force with our earthquake tests – which are all above a magnitude 6.  This lets you evaluate whether your structure survived or see if it needs to be reimagined. Sometimes all it takes is redesigning the composition or recalculating the number of materials to make it work.

What you experience at the shake table is replicated in real life. For example, engineers build models and test them before they start construction on their projects. During this trial period, architects and engineers change one variable and see how that one difference impacts their design. When engineers and architects design buildings, they want to create the safest and most stable structure using the least amount of materials to stay within the budget.

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” - Maya Angelou 

KAPLA Blocks (or Building Planks)

Finally, head on over to the KAPLA Blocks exhibit, which lets you draw inspiration from other designs to create your own structure.

In this exhibit, you will use blocks in three different ways – laying flat, on their edge or upright – to create your design. Nothing says your structure has to go straight up. You can make a pyramid, a bowl shape, spiral or zig-zag it up. Don’t be afraid to experiment, you will learn as you build.

When tinkering with the KAPLA Blocks, you replicate what architects do on the job. In fact, some architects still use building blocks to draw inspiration and get creative. Jeffrey Pelletier, a Seattle-based architect, told PBS that building blocks help him spark new ideas and visualize his projects as an architect. This shows that no matter what you build, there's no reason it can’t be designed in real life.