PLAN 72: Article
Ochsendorf Awarded Macarthur ‘Genius’ Grant

Structural Engineer is the Second from SA+P So Honored

John Ochsendorf, Class of 1942 Career Development Professor in the Department of Architecture, has been awarded a 2008 MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as a 'genius' grant. One of 25 fellows selected this year for 'their creativity, originality and potential to make important contributions in the future', he will receive $500K in no-strings-attached support over five years from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Ochsendorf is the second from SA+P to win a 'genius' grant. In 2007, Media Lab alumnus Saul Griffith (SM '01, PhD'04) was honored for being a 'prodigy of invention in service of the world community'. (See story here.) That same year, Ochsendorf was the first engineer in history to win the Rome Prize Competition sponsored by the American Academy in Rome. (See story here.)

A structural engineer and architectural historian, Ochsendorf works to preserve historic structures and to reinterpret ancient technologies for contemporary use. According to the Foundation: 'In a discipline whose practitioners rarely venture into comparative cultural and historical studies, Ochsendorf is a pioneer in exploring alternative engineering traditions.'

His early studies investigated the construction of hand-woven, fiber suspension bridges that spanned the deep ravines in the Incan Empire. In addition to conducting fieldwork in Peru and analyzing historical accounts of these Incan bridges, he developed a method for testing the strength of the ancient rope-weaving technique to produce the first data on its performance. His cross-cultural interest in bridges also led him to in-depth studies of suspension and cable-stayed bridges in Japan.

More recently, Ochsendorf has turned his attention to identifying the causes of vault and buttress failures in French and Spanish Romanesque churches. Applying his understanding of structural mechanics to problems of masonry construction, his detailed analyses of barrel-vaulted churches are helping to evaluate the safety and condition of particular buildings and to develop practical strategies to address their vulnerabilities, stabilization and restoration.

For another recent project, Ochsendorf led his students in the design of England's Pines Calyx dome, a robust, energy-efficient structure built from local resources using a tile vaulting system patented in the 19th century by Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino. While conducting structural assessments of historic monuments around the world, Ochsendorf develops new methods for establishing the stability of ancient buildings and draws important lessons from them that will guide the construction of more efficient architecture in the future.

Ochsendorf received a BSc (1996) from Cornell, an MSc (1998) from Princeton and a PhD (2002) from Cambridge University. He says that of the five universities where he has studied and taught, MIT is the only one where his current work would be possible. 'I never found a university where I could do such interdisciplinary work so easily,' he said. 'At MIT it's not the exception but the norm.'

Also named from MIT for a 'genius' grant this year was Marin Soljacic ('96), assistant professor of physics, whose work on electromagnetic waves is important for the development of devices such as switches for optical computers and wireless power transmitters.

Two MIT alumni were also named – Andrea Ghez ('87), a professor of astronomy at UCLA whose work allows for very precise analysis of stars and black holes; and Adam Riess ('92), a professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins who was a leading contributor to the finding that the universe is not only expanding but its rate of expansion is accelerating.

Each year, the MacArthur Foundation selects between 20-30 recipients for the five-year, $500K MacArthur Fellowship. Between June 1981 and September 2008, 781 Fellows have been named from a range of disciplines. Past recipients have been writers, scientists, artists, social scientists, humanists, teachers, entrepreneurs, farmers, and fishermen, among many others.

Through the support it provides, the Foundation aims to foster the development of knowledge, to nurture individual creativity, to strengthen institutions, to help improve public policy and to provide information to the public, primarily through support for public interest media. It supports work in about 60 countries around the globe and maintains offices in four focus countries – Mexico, Russia, Nigeria and India.

Posted October 2008