Disabled Cornellian earns Ph.D. after 25 years

May 23, 2009

Students in the field of history of architecture and urbanism typically spend a decade doing course work and teaching, research, fieldwork, and writing, and earn both an M.A. and Ph.D. For John M. O’Brien III, who received his Ph.D. this past May, the process took 25 years, and resulted in a nearly 900-page study of the Italian architect Bernardo Vittone's openwork domed churches, a significant contribution to the field of Italian 18th century architecture. That O'Brien achieved this after a 1995 accident that left him a quadriplegic is nothing short of amazing.

Arriving at Cornell with the specific intention of studying Vittone's work, O'Brien profited from study of medieval architecture with Robert G. Calkins and architectural theory with Val Warke, in addition to a focus on Renaissance and Baroque architecture with Martin Kubelik and Christian Otto, respectively.

"Two very special teachers were Colin Rowe and Chris Otto," commented O’Brien. "Each offered me something very different, and both were important to my growth as a historian."

"My education under Colin was informal and wide-ranging, and our conversations often took place sitting around the round table at his house on Renwick Place, with glasses of Frascati," O’Brien recalled. "Colin registered support of my proposed topic in characteristic form. One day at his house, Colin turned to me and asked, 'So tell me, fella, what do you know about Vittone?' And I replied, 'Not much sir, except that he was something of a recluse and a miser' — to which Colin happily answered, 'How charming, sounds just like me!'"

In contrast, Otto helped O’Brien develop his interest in Vittone through course work, seminars, advising, and introductions to scholars of the Piedmont.

"Everything I learned about Vittone, I learned in Chris’s classes, especially his Baroque class and his seminars," John added. "There I was introduced to the work of Rudolf Wittkower — the art historian who put Vittone on the English-speaking map — and Richard Pommer."

Curiously, both Rowe and Otto were themselves students of Wittkower. "Through Chris and Colin, I was fortunate to have had a real link to Wittkower, who I like to think might have liked what I wrote," O’Brien reflected. 

Awarded the M.A. in 1989 for a study of Palladio’s Tempietto at Maser, O’Brien began focused work on Vittone. "While at Cornell, I was also fortunate to have access to fellow student Elwin Robison (M.A. '83, Ph.D. '85), who studied Guarino Guarini, another Piedmont architect," O’Brien recalled. "In addition, my studies led me to a network of scholars, including Chiara Passanti, Hellmut Hager, and Susan C. Scott, whose knowledge of the Piedmont and the Accademia di San Luca was extremely valuable, and also Julia Smyth-Pinney (B.Arch. ’76), who was a great help from Rome."

In 1993, O’Brien left Cornell to teach at the University of Tennessee–Knoxville, and to continue his research and writing. But in late September 1995, an accident left him a quadriplegic, with paralysis of legs, hands, and fingers. O’Brien faced the work of relearning to accomplish basic daily tasks, as well as the daunting feat of finishing a dissertation.

"At the time of the accident, I had written the first two chapters," O’Brien recounted. "I had the final three chapters to write after I was paralyzed." With site visits and most research completed, the intensive work of synthesis, analysis, and writing lay ahead. After the accident, "the problem I had was in the actual doing of it, and in not knowing whether I could or would finish it." The University of Tennessee, where O’Brien remains an adjunct professor, offered technical assistance, and Otto, his adviser, kept in touch and urged him to stay with the work of writing and revision. "For those ten-plus years," O’Brien remembered, "Chris would call periodically and ask the same question, much like Rex Harrison’s Pope Julius II in The Agony and the Ecstasy: When will it be finished?’ — and this became one of my motivations."

O’Brien did stay with the work, and years of writing, sometimes intensively, sometimes not at all, produced the final three chapters. With adaptive tubing, he wrote, drew, and typed one letter at a time. In this manner, O’Brien completed a dissertation that is 543 pages of text, a bibliography, and 246 images arranged in an appendix. He defended his dissertation by teleconference and turned his materials in to the graduate school for a May 2009 degree.

As he looks to the future, O’Brien has put his dissertation aside to complete work on three unfinished articles: one on Le Corbusier’s Medusa/ Apollo emblem; another on the late Quattrocento Ideal City Panels at the Court of Urbino; and a third on a comparison of Vittone’s frontispiece to his treatise, Istruzioni elementari, and Laugier’s frontispiece to Essai sur L’architecture. When these articles are completed, O’Brien may consider publication options for his dissertation. However, he has a new project in mind that continues many interests and studies developed as a graduate student — a history of the centrally planned church in Italy. With anticipation, O’Brien acknowledged that it will likely be another multi-decade project, one that "I have planned and wanted to do all along."

By Roberta Moudry (’81, M.S. ’90, Ph.D. ’95)

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