Louis Kahn liked to talk to bricks. Famously, he asked, "What do you want, Brick?" And the brick replied, "I like an arch." Yet aside from Kahn's earnest chats with building materials, masonry rarely enters the Modernist discussion. John Ochsendorf, an associate professor of building technology in the MIT School of Architecture + Planning, looks at this and sees an impoverished legacy. Masonry construction—with arches, vaults, domes—was the dominant pre-Modernism building method, but it languishes in an era of steel, glass, and reinforced concrete.

"You cannot study masonry without being in awe of what cultures have accomplished over the years," Ochsendorf says. "We are taught, particularly in engineering school, that we are at the pinnacle of history, but when you look at these old masonry structures, you realize that people in the past knew more than what we know. You have to ask: What can we learn from a Gothic vault today?"

As an engineering undergraduate, Ochsendorf wanted more cultural information than he was getting in his history classes, so he began studying archaeology in conjunction with his more technical engineering courses. His undergraduate thesis on rope suspension bridges in Peru was as much about how their construction is integrated into Incan culture as it was about the bridges' structural merits. Yet it was the Catalan vaulting—thin tile vaults that can stretch across large spaces without formwork—Ochsendorf researched while on a Fulbright fellowship in Spain that became the foundation for much of his current work.

Engineer and architect Rafael Guastavino Moreno brought this Mediterranean masonry technique to the United States when he emigrated from Spain in the 1880s. Simultaneously structural, decorative, and fireproof, the vaulting system is known for its use in, among other notable structures, Manhattan's Grand Central Terminal, by Reed and Stern/Warren and Wetmore, and McKim, Mead, and White's Boston Public Library. Between 1885 and 1962, the R. Guastavino Co. (the founder's son Rafael Guastavino Esposito inherited the business) erected nearly 1,000 buildings across North America, a body of Beaux Arts structures largely neglected by historians. "hey fought for the losing team," Ochsendorf laments. The feats of structural engineering that pushed the limits of masonry were all but eclipsed by modern construction materials. (The Guastavino Project, created by Ochsendorf and managed by the MIT's architecture department at guastavino.net, documents the company's Boston-area oeuvre.)

Although Ochsendorf draws on masonry's past, his work is decidedly forward-looking. In September, he received a prestigious MacArthur fellowship, more commonly known as the "genius grant," for his research on structural engineering history and technology. With research assistant and Ph.D. candidate Philippe Block, he is developing 3-D modeling and parametric tools that can decipher the compression loading in historic structures and assess their safety. Called thrust network analysis (TNA), this same computational method makes it possible to design and engineer new kinds of structural vaults. Currently, the MIT Masonry Group, led by Ochsendorf, is using TNA in conjunction with Buda, Texas-based Escobedo Construction to erect a privately owned pavilion with a free-form, compression-only, unreinforced stone masonry vault outside Austin, Texas.

Also under way, though on the far side of the globe and at the other end of the technology spectrum, is the Mapungubwe National Park Interpretive Centre, located a few hundred miles north of Johannesburg, South Africa. The ambitious sustainable project, situated in a UNESCO World Heritage site and designed by Lerotholi Rich Associated Architects, makes exclusive use of Catalan vaulting to form the interior spaces of the center's handful of buildings. The vaults were designed by Ochsendorf, Block, and Masonry Group alumnus Michael Ramage in collaboration with South African engineer Henry Fagan.

Masonry's high thermal mass makes it perfect for an energy-efficient project, but it is sustainable in broader ways. The Mapungubwe construction team is working with stabilized earth tiles that were made near the site, rather than fired-clay bricks. And as part of the project's Poverty Relief Program, dozens of local workers have been trained as masons. In November, the center received an Africa/Middle East regional acknowledgment prize from the 2008 Holcim Awards for Sustainable Construction.

Ochsendorf is passionate about re-envisioning masonry architecture and engineering as part of a community ecosystem. "We're giving people a new means of livelihood, and people are very excited about building these vaults," he says of the Mapungubwe project. "If we had concrete panels prefabricated and brought them in on a boat, the building wouldn't have changed the area."

In Ochsendorf's hands, masonry is not a relic of history, but a means of economic empowerment and a catalyst for new, sustainable forms.

Learn more about John Ochsendorf's research and projects at web.mit.edu/masonry.