Students design, construct structure honoring late prof

43-foot tensegrity sculpture adorns atrium of Texas A&M's Langford Architecture Center

A 43-foot conceptual structure, designed and built by a dedicated group of Texas A&M University architecture students in memory of one of their favorite professors, was dedicated December 2002 at a special ceremony in the atrium of the Langford Architecture Center.

The tower, technically known as a "tensegrity" structure, was built to honor the memory of the late Alan Stacell, a professor of architecture who for 40 years served as teacher, mentor and friend to a legion of young Texas A&M designers.

"With Alan Stacell, the possibilities were always endless," said Patrick Winn, the senior architecture student who spearheaded the project. "He would never discourage us from the most far-fetched ideas. He would just let us keep going."

Stacell passed away on Dec. 9, 2001, succumbing to cancer shortly after retiring from the Department of Architecture. Though the ceremony marked the first anniversary of Stacell's death, Winn said the student-led event was a celebration of the professor's life and legacy.

"Professor Stacell was in tune with his students and excited about teaching," Winn said. "As a result he instilled in us an incredible passion and in the process created an indelible legacy that lives on in the many students whose lives he has profoundly touched."

The idea for the project was sparked three years ago, when as a sophomore in Stacell's structural design class, Winn was handed a sketch of a tensegrity structure and asked to see if it worked.

"Tensegrity" is a term coined by Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, that describes a unique structural pattern that results when push and pull have a win-win relationship, or tensional integrity. In other words, the continuous pull is balanced by a discontinuous push producing counterforces of tension and compression.

Winn developed a design model of Stacell's unique sketch and over the ensuing years worked intermittently to refine it. He describes the structure as an inverted diamond-shaped box truss, or chain where the links never touch. It is pulled together in both directions by tensioned cables that keep the structure in equilibrium.

It was also Stacell, about a year before his death, who suggested that Winn consider developing the model into a tower. That notion became the seed for the development of the structure unveiled last December.

Though the design of the structure has evolved over the last three years, Winn said, it was only after getting a green light and funding for the project from Tom Regan, dean of the College of Architecture, that work on the project began in earnest. Up until three short weeks before being erected, the tower existed only on paper and in a few small models.

"This structure had to be thought down to the wood grain, nuts and washers," Winn said upon completing the project on the afternoon of Dec. 2, 2002. "Until today, we didn't know 100 percent that the thing would actually work. We had study models that worked fairly well, but on this scale it is almost mind-boggling. I cannot explain the fear and butterflies in my stomach. Everything in this project affects everything else. One missing clevis could have defeated us."

The final design is a 43-foot structure made of furniture-grade maple plywood and high-tension cable. It was erected in the atrium of the Langford Architecture Center and it towers up to the fourth floor.

Students assisting Winn as principals on the project include Nicholas McWhirter, co-designer; Dave Sellers, the project's chief fabricator and constructor; and Brad Adams, who designed and laid the 2,200 pound reinforced concrete base. Other members of the student team were Aaron Cooke, Justin Dezendorf, Drew Duffy, and Reynold Magnuson. The wood for the project was donated by Tom Weaver of Roddis Lumber in San Antonio.

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