Ochsendorf Talks About Receiving MacArthur

Architecture Prof. Brings a Historical Perspective to His Study of Structural Engineering

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John A. Ochsendorf, seen in his office at MIT, is a 2008 MacArthur Fellow for his work in preserving historic structures and recovering ancient technology. Ochsendorf uses his knowledge as a structural engineer to study architectural wonders such as fiber-based suspension bridges in Peru.
Andrea Robles—The Tech

“That is not possible,” thought Professor John Ochsendorf when he got the call from the MacArthur Foundation President, Jonathon F. Fanton. On September 15th, Ochsendorf, an associate professor of Architecture, was in his office with a student when he received a phone call asking if he was alone and sitting down.

At first, he thought it was a prank call but soon realized it was serious and asked the student to step outside. Fanton informed him that he was one of the twenty-five 2008 MacArthur Fellows and would be receiving $500,000 over 5 years in quarterly installments.

How are fellows chosen? According to the foundation’s website, “although nominees are reviewed for their achievements, the fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential.” Some of the award winners aren’t even aware of the foundation but Ochsendorf has colleagues who had won before and therefore was familiar with the award.

Ochsendorf said he plans to spend the money on supporting his projects, funding his students in research, and learning about what they are passionate about. He also hopes to use the money to travel to project sites and conferences.

“I thought I would be a writer,” said Ochsendorf when asked what he wanted to pursue at the early age of 10. “I wrote a 20 page paper on the Inca Empire and I wanted to go to Machu Picchu before I died,” added Oschedorf, revealing his passion for history and travel. When asked what changed, he responded, “when I went to college and tasted research … the sense of discovery … that was really exciting.”

In Spring 1994, as an undergraduate at Cornell, he went on an archeological dig in Ithaca. “I found absolutely nothing, but it was the greatest day of my life,” said Ochsendorf. “You can find an artifact [and] that artifact can link you to a person who was on this site you know 5000 years ago.”

This began his journey to study not only the mechanics of structures but also their history and design. For his senior research project he looked at “the technical and historical study of long span suspension bridges built by the Inca Empire in South America.”

From Cornell, he went on to do graduate work at Princeton University and then finally a doctorate at the University of Cambridge. “The truth is, I always studied things that I really loved but would never lead to a job,” said Oschendorf. “I choose to study old stone structures, old stone monuments, you couldn’t possibly get a job studying that, nobody studies how old stone monuments stand up or fall down,” he added. His PhD work revolved around studying failures of stone buttresses, vaults, and arches. He also spent a year in Spain on a Fulbright scholarship studying cathedral buildings.

Ochsendorf felt very lucky about finding his job at MIT: “I was at the right place at the right time.” As a faculty member in the department of Architecture, he teaches architects how to design safe buildings, bridging the fields of structural engineering and architectural design. Ochsendorf felt right at home in a department that is very interdisciplinary, much like his background. He began work at MIT as an assistant professor in July 2002. In the past 6 years, he has built up a research group that studies mostly masonry structures.

The masonry research group has various projects in three broad areas, mechanics, design, and historical architecture. The mechanics deals with the physical constraints on buildings and modeling them with software. The design aspect involves projects in various regions of the world including a project in Mapungubwe area in South Africa. “The group designed structural vaults made out of local soil for a new museum to be built,” according to the project website.

Oschendorf spoke with a lot of enthusiasm and passion for what he does and the importance of understanding structures specific to design constraints. He remarked while it may be useful to build tall skyscrapers in Manhattan out of titanium, it isn’t the same specifications or even appropriate to do the same in South Africa. He understands that we aren’t going to revert back to the days of the Incas but raises the point that we have to be conscious of our resources and use technology as well as history in conjunction to aid us in creating more efficient structures.

The other fellows ranged from a saxophonist to an infectious disease physician. Ochsendorf will be getting the first check in January. There is only one obligation: “I had to promise to cash the checks.”