Godzilla v. Architecture Students' Bridges

Godzilla: 9 Bridges: 1

Margie Peterson; photos by Patricia Canavan,

It would be easy to mistake the svelte Brittany Lewis for a heroine in a monster movie but for the purposes of Monday's Balsa Bridge Competition at Northampton Community College, she was the monster. 

"I'm Godzilla," said Lewis, a second year architecture student, as she stepped onto a model bridge built by a classmate entirely from balsa wood, kite string and Elmer's glue. 

Sure enough, the bridge cracked under the 100-pound Lewis and Professor Barry Cohen turned to his students in Architecture 204: Analysis of Structural Form and asked: "Where is it failing? It's the joints." 

Cohen has been assigning the Balsa Bridge project to students for about 15 years and he acknowledges the difficulty in trying to construct something sturdy under narrow perimeters. Students can only use balsa wood - which is among the flimsiest of boards - plus kite string and Elmer's glue. To up the ante, Cohen insists that the bridges span 4 feet but no piece of it can be longer than 2 feet. 

The test, performed Monday on about 10 students' bridges, is whether each can hold the lightest person in the class, in this case Lewis from Fogelsville. 

Of the 10, only Geoff Rybitski's span supported Lewis without cracking. 

Rybitski of Bethlehem said he worked on the project for three days and made sure to have bracing in all directions. 

"It didn't [move] left or right because the bracing I did prevented that," he said. 

An architecture major, Rybitski said he enjoyed the challenge. "It's definitely a passion of mine." 

Cohen gave him credit for a unique design. "This is one of the more ingenious ones I've seen," he said. 

Delajuwon D. Perry was sure his span would withhold Lewis's weight, partly because he used 260 pieces of string to brace the bridge. "The string didn't fail, the string is still intact," said Perry afterwards. "It was the bridge itself that failed. When it cracked in the middle, it just folded right in half because there wasn't enough to brace it." 

Like Rybitski, Perry of Allentown embraced the challenge. 

"To me it's always fun, I love a hands-on project," Perry said. "When you're allowed to put your hands on something, when you're allowed to create something, you get much more out of it." 

Perry hopes to finish his architecture degree at University of Hawaii and wants to build affordable, sustainable homes.  

"My plan is to build residential homes that are completely off the grid...everything is renewable and sustainable," Perry said. "It's one step toward a better economy." 

Architecture Professor Kenneth Trionfo said he was amazed at the amount of work that went into each bridge and reminded the students that all the components of their spans should have utility and not just be decorative. 

"Everything on here should serve a structural purpose," Trionfo said. "If a cable is a cable, it should be in tension. If all the cables are hanging, you're not going to drive over that thing." 

The class has undertaken other seemingly impossible projects, such as building a structure out of three pieces of paper that will support a brick and constructing a two-foot tower out of spaghetti and marshmallows that supports an egg. 

Cohen said he didn't look at the bridge projects as failures just because most broke under the weight. 

"It's about learning why it didn't work," he said. "It teaches them basic structural principals, how do trusses work...it also teaches them to utilize the materials that they have." 

A lot of the suspense comes because the students can't really test the structures without risk of breaking them. But that's part of the attraction.
"Pieces go flying," Cohen said chuckling. "Those are the fun ones."

Check out more of the students' bridges in this Flickr gallery.