William O’Brien Jr. Pursues a Refreshed Criticality Toward Contemporary Architectural Form

February 8, 2013
William O'Brien Jr. in the Rockefeller Studio
Totems, recent exhibition
Architectural Fictions, work in progress at the American Academy in Rome.
Architectural Fictions, work in progress at the American Academy in Rome.
The Rotund, recent design-research
William O'Brien Jr. in Quartiere Coppedé in Rome. Photo: Lucy Corin
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William O'Brien Jr. is the Founders Rome Prize Winner in Architecture. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Architecture at MIT where he holds the Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Chair, and is the principal of an independent architectural design practice in Cambridge.

What part of the United States did you come from?
I grew up in Massachusetts. I went to college in Upstate New York and returned to Massachusetts for graduate school. After graduate school, I lived and taught in Berkeley, Columbus, and Austin. Three and half years ago my wife and I moved back to Massachusetts to be near family and so that I could begin a teaching position at MIT.

Why did you apply for the Rome Prize?
I had been told that while living in Italy under the auspices of the Rome Prize, an architect's contemporary culture is displaced, and he experiences the contrast of Rome as a powerful influence to unsettle and destabilize his outlook. I was motivated by the idea that being temporarily removed from my normal context might allow me to develop a healthy skepticism and a refreshed criticality toward prevalent status quos in contemporary architecture.

Describe a particularly inspiring moment or location you've experienced in Rome thus far.
There have been many inspiring moments since arriving in Rome in September. More impactful for me than any individual inspiring moment has been the omnipresent, general state of stimulation and support here at the Academy. I’m finding the Rome Prize Fellowship year to be a kind of sustained aberration, an unimaginable, yearlong departure from one’s normal reality.

Particularly inspiring to me is the environment that the Academy cultivates.  It is, at times, an environment that allows one to be deeply introspective and it enables an otherwise improbable continuity of creative thought. What would normally be a fleeting idea in one’s usual context, at the American Academy such an idea has a lifespan of a much more significant duration. In this context, ideas are capable of being suspended, allowing observation and considerations from all angles. To those who create, such a context is a gift without equal.

To what extent, if any, has your proposed project changed since your arrival?
The scope of the project has become broader. As the ambition of the project has grown I’ve realized that the project will have a life after my time at the Academy. I plan to bring some of the problems that I’m working on here in Rome back to MIT as a way to get students involved and continue to develop the project; very exciting.

How do you anticipate your Rome Prize Fellowship will influence future work?
Some of the characteristics of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture that I’m studying while here in Rome have already informed my design work. I consider it inevitable that the work I design in the future will be influenced by the things I’m seeing this year.

What is your favorite spot at the Academy?
I have two spots that standout at the Academy. One is the studio where I work, the Rockefeller Studio. It overlooks the fountain at the entry gate, faces the Villa Aurelia, and has a view out to Rome. The other space that I go out of my way to walk through is the cortile. It is quiet, and beautifully sunlit in the morning and the late afternoon.