Ice 'palace' graces Hollister patio

Freshman Rob Shydo sprays water to build up ice on the thin-shell dome on the Hollister Hall patio Feb. 13. Robert Barker/University Photography

By David Brand

It wasn't quite Kubla Khan's "stately pleasure-dome" but it was Hollister Hall's ice house.

Taking their cue from Swiss architect Heinz Isler's famous sweeping ribless structural shells, Mark Valenzuela, an instructor in civil and environmental engineering, and graduate student Sanjay Arwade, last weekend created Cornell's first thin-shell ice structure.

With the help of freshmen Rob Shydo, Dave Peckham, Thomas Chen, Lauren Isaac and Mark Mattson, Valenzuela and Arwade created a smaller-than-hoped but still classically rounded ice house on the patio on the west side of Hollister.

First the group inflated an 8-foot-diameter latex weather balloon to about half its fully inflated size (it was too gusty to chance greater inflation) and then covered the balloon with cheesecloth. The structure was then watered down with a fine spray from a hose.

The first layer of water took about five minutes to freeze in the 20-degree plus temperature. The process was repeated for about five hours until the cheesecloth became a compressive, self-supporting structure.

The weather balloon was then deflated and removed leaving behind a quarter-inch shell: a shimmering creation round on top and draped in still life at the bottom. "The whole beauty of shell structures is that they are eggshell-thin relative to the great area they span," said Valenzuela.

If temperatures stay low enough this winter, the engineers would like to try again with a larger structure. Weather balloons, Valenzuela notes, come as large as 16 feet in diameter.

There is a way to go, though, before challenging Isler's exotic, massive structures, which he has spent decades perfecting both with concrete and ice.

"Sanjay and I were inspired by Isler's works. We hope these experiments can help the students see the importance of creative play in designing structures that are both strong and elegant," said Valenzuela.

Cornell Chronicle, February 18, 1999