The American Academy in Rome (AAR) has selected John Ochsendorf to become its 23rd director. With the multidisciplinary expertise of the great builders of the past, the structural and preservation engineer, architectural historian, and Class of 1942 professor of architecture and civil and environmental engineering at MIT will begin his three-year appointment in Rome on July 1. “The breadth of John’s experience makes him an ideal choice,” said AAR president and CEO Mark Robbins, in a Jan. 23 press release. “He will also be a great partner for the staff and Board in reinforcing awareness of AAR’s global impact.”

John Ochsendorf
Alan Silfen John Ochsendorf

The AAR’s search committee selected Ochsendorf “from a large and competitive pool of candidates” for his “research activity and academic experience,” said Mary Margaret Jones, chair of the AAR Board of Trustees, in the press release. After earning his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in engineering at Cornell University, Princeton University, and Cambridge University, respectively, Ochsendorf began teaching architecture and engineering at MIT, where he encouraged undergraduate and graduate students (including this writer) to delve into the connections between the two fields.

Along with his signature work in the preservation and structural analysis of masonry structures, Ochsendorf has studied the mechanics of suspension bridges woven from grass by the Incans, in Peru, and helped an artist dangle a metal safe with just chains of folded dollar bills.

Ochsendorf will also be a familiar face at AAR. In 2007, he won a Rome Prize, becoming the first engineer to win the prestigious fellowship, which proffers a year to research and study at the organization’s 11-acre campus in Rome. That sabbatical helped Ochsendorf write the monograph Guastavino Vaulting: The Art of Structural Tile (Princeton Architectural Press, 2010), which led to Palaces for the People: Guastavino and America’s Great Public Spaces, a 2012–2013 traveling exhibition sponsored by National Endowment for the Humanities.

Guastavino tile vaults with polychrome glaze in the defunct City Hall Subway Station, New York. Architects: Heins and LaFarge (1904)
Michael Freeman The Guastavino tile vaults in the defunct City Hall Subway Station, New York, was part of the 2012–2013 exhibition curated by John Ochsendorf. Architects: Heins and LaFarge (1904)

Beyond feeling “excited and deeply humbled” by his appointment as AAR’s incoming director, Ochsendorf, above all, is “looking forward to giving back to the Academy,” he says. “It has given me time and space to think and work, and I’m excited to help make that possible for others. The academy is a special place where I feel at home intellectually because my two key pursuits—exploring the history of construction technology, and [seeking] new possibilities in design, with traditional materials in particular—are central to academy’s mission.”

Ochsendorf’s built work includes contributing to the engineering of several award-winning projects, such as the Mapungubwe Interpretative Centre, in South Africa, the Sean Collier Memorial on MIT’s campus, and two installations at the 2016 Venice Biennale of Architecture, including the Armadillo Vault at the "Beyond Bending" exhibition. He is also a partner of the engineering consultancy Ochsendorf, DeJong and Block, which he founded with two of his former graduate students.

The Mapungubwe National Park Interpretive Centre is sustainable in many ways. Among them: (1) The vaults are composed of locally made stabilized earth tiles and designed to be structurally sound with a minimum use of material and at the lowest cost possible; (2) the tiles' high thermal mass passively cools spaces and radiates heat at night; (3) as part of the project's Poverty Relief Program, the structures are being built by locals trained in a masonry technique that is quickly and easily learned.
James Bellamy The Mapungubwe National Park Interpretive Centre, in South Africa, designed by Peter Rich Architects
Iwan Baan Sean Collier Memorial, in Cambridge, Mass., designed by Höweler and Yoon Architecture

Founded in 1894, the AAR is a not-for-profit, privately funded institution that offers the Rome Prize Fellowship and Italian Fellowships to several artists and scholars in the arts and humanities each year. Recent fellows in architecture include Yasmin Vobis, a principal at Ultramoderne, in Providence, R.I.; Javier Galindo, a principal at JGCH, in New York; Catie Newell, founding principal of Alibi Studio and an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College; Nicholas de Monchaux, a critic and associate professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California, Berkeley.

AAR also offers one- to three-month term residencies for opportunities for collaboration and leadership among the community. Recent residents include David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA, and Jeanne Gang, FAIA. “One of the most exciting things about the intellectual community [at the Academy] is that the boundaries are very porous between disciplines,” Ochsendorf says. “The conversations that occur—about materials, techniques, and theoretical approaches—go across the centuries. It’s just an incredibly exciting place to be.”

AAR’s current director, Kimberly Bowes, will return to her position as an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s department of classical studies upon completing her term in June.

ETH Zurich / Iwan Baan Armadillo Vault, "Beyond Bending" exhibition, Venice Biennale 2016

Note: This story has been updated since first publication.