As Marshall Prado watches the fibers wind in his latest architectural project in the College of Architecture and Design’s Fab Lab, he sees worlds coming together.
An assistant professor of design and structural technology, Prado graduated from Harvard University with two master’s degrees, then spent four years at the University of Stuttgart’s Institute for Computational Design, where he designed eye-popping pavilions intended to mimic beetle shells, subaquatic spider nests, and the silk hammocks of moth larvae.
“I like to experiment with the ways different disciplines, from computer science and engineering to biology, can contribute to the way we work as architects,” Prado says.
Prado, who was briefly an engineering student at North Carolina State University before moving into architecture, was drawn to UT by the cutting-edge robotics and manufacturing facilities offered by the College of Architecture and Design, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and industrial partners throughout East Tennessee.
“There are very few universities that have the equipment and digital tools that we have available here,” Prado says.
Through his computational design and robotic fabrication studio—the first offered by the university—Prado extends a unique opportunity for students to join the kinds of innovative large-scale projects that have distinguished his career.
As part of being named an Exhibit Columbus Research Fellow in 2018 by the city of Columbus, Indiana, Prado is working with 14 students in his robotics seminar to create a 30-foot glass and carbon fiber tower commissioned by the city for a park adjacent to its famous North Christian Church, an iconic building designed by Eero Saarinen.
The project uses the Fab Lab’s state-of-the-art robotic arm—traditional to the automobile industry—to tightly wind glass and carbon fiber filament together into 27 pieces that Prado and his students will fit together when they install the tower in Columbus in August.
“To have a one-on-one experience going from the development to the construction and installation phases of a project is rare for students at the university level,” Prado says. “But it is so important for their design and architectural development.”
The opportunity to work with carbon fiber structures, which are new to the profession, motivated Kristia Bravo, who is in her final semester of a Master of Architecture degree, to sign up for Prado’s seminar.
“Not everyone is familiar with these novel modes of fabrication so we’re kind of on the bleeding edge,” says Bravo. “This was my first opportunity to work with the large-scale robot, and because it’s my last semester I really want to take advantage of it.”
Alex Stiles, a PhD candidate in the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education’s Energy Science and Engineering program, had some experience working with ORNL’s robots as part of his research with composites—the combination of dissimilar materials, such as glass, carbon, Kevlar, or plastics.
But he was surprised to discover that a composites-based course, using the Fab Lab’s Kuka robot, was being offered in architecture.
“It’s been an eye-opening experience for me,” Stiles says. “Sometimes engineers think that architects are only focused on the artistic and design aspects of a project. In some ways, to understand both the structure and aesthetic components, they have to consider a broader scope than what engineers normally consider.”
Prado relishes providing these new experiences to his students, whether expanding the hands-on knowledge of architecture students like Bravo or making way for cross-collaboration with engineers like Stiles. By doing so, he contributes to the transformative educational experience offered through the College of Architecture and Design while also paving the way for innovation across disciplines.
“No person designs a building alone,” Prado says. “Engineers, architects, material specialists all add their expertise.”
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