Sept. 23, 2008

Two alumni win MacArthur 'genius' grants

John Ochsendorf '96, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology associate professor of building technology, and Jennifer Tipton '58, a stage lighting designer, have each received $500,000, no-strings-attached fellowships from the John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation. The five-year grants of $100,000 annually are made to individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and are intended to provide recipients with the flexibility to pursue their activities in the absence of specific obligations.

Ochsendorf, 34, is a structural engineer and architectural historian. He preserves historic structures and reinterprets ancient technologies for contemporary use. Ochsendorf has investigated the construction of hand-woven, fiber suspension bridges that spanned the deep ravines in the Inca empire and studied suspension and cable-stayed bridges in Japan.

More recently, Ochsendorf has looked at the causes of vault and buttress failures in French and Spanish Romanesque churches. In 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.

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.

After receiving a degree in structural engineering at Cornell, he earned a master's degree from Princeton University in 1998 and a Ph.D. from Cambridge University in 2002.

Tipton, 71, who received her Cornell degree in English, is an internationally recognized lighting designer best known for her work in dance. In Twyla Tharp's "In the Upper Room" (1986) and "Fait Accompli" (1983), Tipton's strategic placement of white lights coupled with fog allowed dancers to materialize, only to disappear into a void, reinforcing the progression of the dance. Her subtle, shifting lighting for Eugene O'Neill's "A Moon for the Misbegotten" on Broadway in 2005 supported the play's balance between vitality and sadness; in the final scene, the approach of dawn affirms the peace and forgiveness finally achieved by the protagonists. Tipton's lighting interacts intimately with the work's physical appearance and emotional resonance.

She has designed lighting for the New York City Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre and the Paul Taylor Dance Company and for theatrical productions at St. Ann's Warehouse, the Public Theatre and the Metropolitan Opera, among others. Since 1994, Tipton has served as an adjunct professor of lighting design at the Yale University School of Drama.