Skip to content
MIT Better World

By Ken Shulman

Inside, three associates toil at workstations at a long table. Renderings, mockups, and a library adorn the walls around them.

But a closer look reveals a practice that is like few others, a teeming space where past, present, and future eddy in silence. At one workstation, a young associate charts the locations of Narragansett Indian burial sites on Rhode Island’s Block Island, to avoid building atop the relics. A polished stainless-steel arch—a scale model for a competition—hovers near the edge of the communal table, portal to an unseen but imminent universe.

On the side wall, perched on a bookshelf, an African mask scowls like a stern sentinel, flanked by photographs of the anthropomorphic mask sculptures WOJR prepared for a Spring 2017 exhibition in Switzerland. The masks are abstractions from forms and volumes in WOJR’s Mask House, a contemplative home and retreat created for a client in upstate New York.

“We believe that the making of architecture is the making of artifacts,” says William O’Brien Jr., eponymous founder and principal of WOJR, and faculty member since 2009 in the MIT Department of Architecture, where, among other duties, he coordinates the first semester studio in the Master of Architecture program. “They are both objects that are imbued with meaning that the viewer then unpacks. We want to bridge the gap between inception and perception, to imagine how an object or form will be interpreted at the same moment we’re making it.”

More than an act of will, architecture for O’Brien is an act of cultural expression— an inquiry into the archetypal forms he finds in prehistoric Iceland or baroque Rome, as well as into the meanings present and future viewers will glean from them. J. Meejin Yoon, head of the Department of Architecture at MIT, characterizes O’Brien’s work in terms of  “elucidation, refinement, and crystallization.” In her view, “He bridges formal and material concerns of the discipline with representations that test, balance, and literally draw original ways forward with great mastery.”

While his work is firmly rooted in history, O’Brien brings to it a vital digital fluency. He entered the profession at a pivotal time, just as it had begun to fully digest the digital design technologies that had so radically transformed—some might even say hijacked— it. “We’re in a post-digital moment in architecture,” he explains. “For designers of my generation, and even more so in the next generation, we are increasingly facile with the range of digital methodologies. We’re no longer entertained, in the same way as in the late ’90s and early 2000s, by the formal novelties that can be produced by complex digital processes. Instead, we can go back to thinking conceptually, and use these technologies to support that thinking.”

Studies in perception

Born and raised in Stow, Massachusetts, O’Brien was an undergraduate at Hobart College hovering between career options in music and design before he opted to pursue a master’s in architecture at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. In 2010, he was a finalist for the MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program and a winner of the Design Biennial Boston Award. In 2012, he received a Rome Prize Fellowship in architecture at the American Academy in Rome. The following year, Wallpaper* named him one of the world’s top-20 emerging architects, and Architectural Record gave him its Design Vanguard Award.

O’Brien has earned his accolades by seeking out unusual situations and challenges that test and expand his vision. In a house design for a site in Durango, Colorado, he took a very familiar postwar form—the A-frame house—and repeated it in an idiosyncratic, asymmetrical chain. When two brothers asked for twin houses for their land in upstate New York, he drew on a mathematical principle called minimal dissections to create a square house and a hexagonal house made up of the same parts. His modular approach to questions of form—examining, adapting, and assembling old shapes in new ways—could also create new possibilities and processes for builders.

Some of his designs become buildings. Some of them don’t. One of his most ambitious designs, however—the suggestive and secluded Mask House—is slated for construction by 2018. Set in Ithaca, New York, the 587-square-foot domicile was commissioned by a filmmaker whose younger brother drowned in a nearby lake. It is an almost otherworldly response to the client’s desire for contemplation and sanctuary. One approaches the stilt-supported home on a dark metal gangway. Embedded above a hillside, its façade is concealed behind a broad, slatted wall—a barrier that marks the passage between inside and outside, between man and nature, even between life and the hereafter. The interior is dominated by a large central room with light-colored wooden paneling, broad wall-sized windows, and a conical metal fireplace and chimney— an aesthetic that speaks in potent silences. A small sleeping nook is sculpted out of the far wall.

With light-colored paneling, vast picture windows, and simple, austere geometries, the Mask House’s central room embodies the home’s primary function as a space for contemplation. Spaces for food preparation, eating, and sleeping—the nook for a bed is pictured here—are secondary. IMAGE: WOJR
While its front is designed for privacy, the Mask House features broad windows at the rear that provide unobstructed views of the surrounding countryside. IMAGE: WOJR
Based on visual elements from the Mask House, the seven masks WOJR displayed this past spring at BALTSprojects in Zurich chart the frontier between architecture and artifact, and between the seen and unseen world. For example, Brush Mask (far left)—a series of slender metal strands concealing a block of wood—recreates the atmosphere of the house’s façade. PHOTO: WOJR

In 2015, O’Brien was invited to display his work by BALTSprojects, a gallery in Zurich, Switzerland, that specializes in art and architectural exhibitions. His first impulse was to display drawings and renderings from the Mask House. Instead, he and his colleagues decided to build masks—three-dimensional sculptures in metal, wood, and marble, all inspired by the forms and volumes of the Mask House. The sculptures are studies in perception—a distillation of the experience one might feel approaching, entering, and living in the Mask House. Yet they are also discrete objects that exist and communicate on their own. “I wanted to explore the domain between architecture and art,” says O’Brien. “To create objects that say something about architecture but that aren’t architecture in themselves, conceptual pieces that can get us thinking about architecture in a new way.” The show, which closed this past May, is scheduled for several European venues next year.

While he never pursued music as a profession, music continues to inform his research and practice. Both, for O’Brien, are inquiries into form. “I was fascinated by music theory,” he says. “I loved learning about the different musical formats, from classical to contemporary, and about how musicians deviated from those formats—while still acknowledging them— to create something new.”

It would not be accurate to call O’Brien a traditionalist or an iconoclast. Architecture for him is an infinite discussion on the continuum between past and future, maker and viewer, idea and matter. And in this discussion, he thinks, the architect can best serve as moderator. “I don’t believe that architects create meaning,” he says. “I think we need to envision how our creations will be received. And, whenever possible, to reduce the possibility that these creations will be wildly misinterpreted, whether today or tomorrow. We’re so deeply steeped in history. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Our task is to take something that we think we know, and then by subtle alterations and processes of defamiliarization, make something new from the known.”