Ideas to Scale

by Andrew Wickenden ’09

Architectural designer William O’Brien Jr. ’00 has designed sculptural totems and a spherical anechoic (non-echoing) chamber; courtyard houses in China’s Shanghai province and rural homes in Upstate New York; a memorial for U.S. servicemembers killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and what he calls “Architectural Fictions,” which, he describes as, “a series of architectural objects that retell stories of historical methods of architectural form-making by bringing them into a contemporary context.”

WOJR—O’Brien’s independent design practice in Cambridge, Mass.,— develops a wide spectrum of work, from more conceptually oriented to more professionally-oriented. Project types include residential, cultural, and institutional; some are large and some are very small.

“We work with clients who are culturally aware and aspire to make a contribution to the discipline of architecture,” O’Brien says. “We love the spectrum of projects that we work on, and certainly both ends of the spectrum each influence the other.”

At HWS, O’Brien studied architecture and music theory— seemingly disparate disciplines in which he “was interested in considering common ground shared by forms in music and forms in architecture”— before pursuing his graduate studies at Harvard University, where he was the recipient of the Master of Architecture Faculty Design Award.

After teaching fellowships at University of California, Berkeley and The Ohio State University, and two years as assistant professor at University of Texas Austin, O’Brien now teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology School of Architecture and Planning, where he is an associate professor of architecture and holds the Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Chair.

In 2013, WOJR was named one of the top 20 emerging architecture firms in the world by the design magazine Wallpaper*. In 2014 Architectural Record selected his practice as one of the 10 most promising design offices internationally. WOJR was awarded the 2011 Architectural League Prize for Young Architects and Designers and, in 2010, won the Design Biennial Boston Award and was a finalist for the MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program.

As the recipient of the 2012-2013 Rome Prize Fellowship in Architecture awarded by the American Academy in Rome, O’Brien spent 11 months in Italy, during which he reexamined anachronous architectural forms and methods— from symmetry to proportionality—“to reconsider their validity in form-making today.”

O’Brien says that upon his return from Rome in 2013, he felt he “had the experience and the intellectual resources to build a practice. Rome was incredibly inspiring and is motivating me to focus on built work more than the design of speculative work.”

Now with several projects on their way to construction, and the office growing, O’Brien feels as though “the practice is still quite new, as there are new kinds of challenges that emerge as the practice grows and as we take on larger projects.”


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