Engineer, Lighting Designer Among Winners of “Genius” Grants

September 25, 2008

By Tim McKeough

John Ochsendorf
Jennifer Tipton
Photos courtesy MacArthur Foundation
John Ochsendorf (top); Jennifer Tipton (above).

On Tuesday, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced the recipients of its 2008 MacArthur Fellowships, commonly known as the “genius grants.” Among the 25 winners are engineer and architectural preservationist John Ochsendorf, and stage lighting designer Jennifer Tipton.

The annual fellowships provide each recipient $500,000, paid in quarterly installments over five years, to use as they please, with no strings attached. Winners are selected for their “creativity, originality, and potential to make important contributions in the future,” according to the foundation. The fellows typically span a wide range of fields, from science and medicine to literature, art, and music. The selection process is shrouded in secrecy: Anonymous nominators are invited to submit candidates, and a 12-member selection committee, also anonymous, then makes the final picks.

Ochsendorf, a 34-year-old structural engineer and associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, uses high-tech tools to study ancient building technology and reinterpret it for present-day application. He has analyzed hand-woven Incan suspension bridges in South America’s Andes Mountains, cable-stayed bridges in Japan, and vault and buttress failure in French and Spanish Romanesque churches. Ochsendorf’s work helps assess the safety of historical structures and aims to draw lessons about sustainable design from the past.

Tipton, 71, is an acclaimed lighting designer for dance, theater, and opera productions, and an adjunct professor of lighting at Yale’s School of Drama. The 1958 Cornell graduate has received numerous honors, including two Tony Awards. Her commissions have included work with the New York City Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre, Twyla Tharp Dance, the Metropolitan Opera, and St. Ann’s Warehouse, among other companies and venues. The MacArthur Foundation noted that Tipton has “redefined the relationship between lighting and performance” with “painterly” schemes that often use a limited palette of colors. She also is credited with being one of the first designers to use white light for theater and dance.

The 2008 fellows join a list of 756 other individuals who have received the award since 1981.The full list of this year’s winners is posted on the foundation’s Web site.


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