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Art, engineering entwined in outdoor exhibit May 1-14

Portals to an Architecture

Civil and environmental engineering master's student Steve Preston fuses art, engineering and sustainability in this exhibit, “Portals to an Architecture,” which features 14 entwined paper tubes of varying sizes. The exhibit will be on display on Engineering Mall from May 1 through 14. (large image)

In August 2004, just two days before he would leave Madison to pursue his dream — a master's degree in architecture — University of Wisconsin-Madison civil and environmental engineering student Steve Preston learned he had cancer.

Not only did the diagnosis — Hodgkin's lymphoma — reroute his educational path, it also changed how Preston approaches each day. “I would go to bed at night and I would just cling to the hope that I'd wake up the next morning,” he says. “It was that bad. You don't realize how precious life is, or how much you really need to get done, until you're actually staring down that path.”

He views that path — his memories, his experiences and his future — as a series of portals. “Joining all of those portals, you can create a new place to go to, and conversely, you have a place where you've been,” says Preston, who began cancer treatments at UW Hospital and enrolled as a master's student in civil and environmental engineering.

Preston will bring his portals to life in a series of massive paper-tube arches for his outdoor exhibit, “Portals to an Architecture,” May 1 through 14 on the College of Engineering campus. “You have to do what makes you happy,” he says. “And you have to do things that you want to do. Something that I've always wanted to do is make a sculpture, and have it be visible, and have it mean something.”

“Portals” will feature 14 entwined paper-tube arches — some of which weigh nearly 600 pounds — in varying sizes and lengths. Together, they will form a single, stable structural system.

The number of arches is significant, as is each shape, length and tube size in the exhibit, says Preston. “I took the shape of each arch from a CT head-scan I had done when I was sick,” he says. “I felt a connection with each of the 14 arches from that image and I combined them on a drawing to line up and interconnect.”

Nine freshman enrolled in an introduction to engineering design course have collaborated with Preston to plan and prepare the exhibit. They will help him install the work the week of April 24 on Engineering Mall. “Obviously, it's in a location such that it's a portal to the College of Engineering, but I hope it means something different for everybody who walks through and interacts with the exhibition,” he says.

Although the art aspect of “Portals” may be evident to viewers, it is just as much an engineering project, says Preston, whose educational emphasis is in structural engineering. Most notably, because the paper tubes are manufactured straight, Preston is exploiting the materials' undesirable tendency to creep — to sag, stretch, or in this case, bend. “We're using creep to our advantage,” he says.

He and the freshmen engineering students built pedestal-style supports that provided an environment for the tubes to bend slowly into shape under their own weight. They also used computer models to ensure the sculpture can withstand wind gusts up to 90 mph and devised a system for anchoring the arches securely into the ground.

In a different setting, the arches might be covered with canvas to provide emergency shelter; in an early stage of the project, Preston investigated methods to create temporary housing and emergency shelters like those by architect Shigeru Ban, whose work inspired Preston's use of paper tubes.

Preston chose the building materials for “Portals” based on their sustainability and, to some degree, availability worldwide. As a result, the structure is engineered to last but also has a minimal effect on the environment, says Preston. “The sculpture is made from recycled materials, but it's more of an example of different techniques we can use to design and engineer more sustainably,” he says.

Donated by Sonoco, the paper tubes are made from recycled paper; after the exhibition, Sonoco will use them to make new tubes. To weatherproof them, Preston and the students coated the tubes with a low volatile organic compound polyurethane. They will sink high-density polyethylene culvert sections into the ground as sleeves to hold the tube-arches in place; they will return the sections for recycling. And where the arches interconnect, the students will use fiber-reinforced polymer bolts that don't rust; they, too, will head back to donor Strongwell to be recycled.

Preston hopes that the complex engineering behind his exhibit remains invisible. Rather, he wants visitors to touch it, walk through it and appreciate it as art. “If it's so sublime that we can get the viewers to forget all of the technology and details, that we did so much research and structural engineering behind the scenes, our goal will have been met,” he says.

His cancer now is in full remission. This summer, under his advisor, Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Larry Bank, he will complete and defend his thesis about the “Portals” project. And in fall, Preston will pass though yet another portal, as he begins master's work in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

To learn more or view exhibit photos, visit