A Modern Master Builder

“Parents will love to hear this,” Professor John Ochsendorf grinned. “I have always studied problems that would never, ever lead to a job. They were just things that fascinated me.”

In listening to him describe just a few of those “problems” in detail – from Inca bridges woven entirely of grass to domed cathedrals sturdily constructed without steel – it was easy to understand how these structures could capture his imagination and lead to the creative, scientific career he so clearly enjoys. As an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and architecture at MIT, Professor Ochsendorf researches the mechanics and behavior of historical structures around the world with the twin goals of preserving them and learning how construction techniques from the past might be applied to sustainable design projects today.

Speaking at Middlesex on October 1, 2012, as the second Hub Lecturer this year, Professor Ochsendorf recounted his own academic journey, in which he started as an engineering major at Cornell and was encouraged by his advisor to combine that discipline with his newfound passion for archeology, rather than choosing between the two subjects. After studying the intricacies of the Inca suspension bridge, he earned his M.Sc. at Princeton University and his Ph.D. at Cambridge University, focusing in his thesis on fan vaults, such as the exquisite example in Kings College Chapel. Marveling at its strength and stability despite its delicate, eggshell-like thickness that “no building code would allow today,” he stated, “This was an incredible work of technology, and I wanted to understand it.”

This kind of knowledge, Professor Ochsendorf proposed, may help engineers, architects, and art historians with the problem of determining repair techniques before disaster strikes, as it did when a 1997 earthquake aftershock caused the collapse of the vault inside the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, destroying irreplaceable frescoes by Giotto.

“How do we make appropriate interventions and understand the construction of these historic monuments better?” he queried. “Part of what we are doing is sharpening our tools for when someone says a historic building isn’t safe and needs to be wrapped in chains. We are creating new tools of analysis to understand these older structures. We can use computer models to show that they are stable and safe, and we can take laser scans of cathedrals and turn them into stability models.” Using such tools, he added, “We hope to be able to push back, so that we don’t have to do interventions,” for that is often when “repairs” are done that actually make things worse.

To the students in the audience, Professor Ochsendorf  recommended, “It is incredibly important that you be multidisciplinary and invent your own major. I want you to embrace your own interests and make your own field because that’s when magic happens. You are more likely to have an impact with what you do.  Stay curious – look for your own Inca bridges.”

This was excellent advice from someone who has already been awarded the Rome Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship. He is also the author of Guastavino Vaulting: the Art of Structural Tile, a signed copy of which he gave to the Warburg Library after his presentation.

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