O’Connor challenge may bring $2 million to School of Architecture’s Casbarian Travel Fund

Being there means the world

Rice News staff

To be a great architect, one needs to see the world.

Rice University trustee emeritus Ralph O’Connor, a Houston entrepreneur, civic leader and philanthropist, understands this necessity and has stepped up with a plan to preserve and enhance the tradition of extending Rice architecture classrooms around the planet.


O’Connor has established the John J. Casbarian Travel Fund in honor of his friend, a longtime and multifaceted leader at the Rice School of Architecture (RSA). O’Connor will match any commitment, gift or pledge to the fund before Rice’s centennial Oct. 12, 2012, up to $1 million in total.

The challenge is part of Rice’s Centennial Campaign to raise $1 billion to build upon the university’s first century of achievement.

The Casbarian fund “offers a wonderful tribute to John, who in addition to serving the school in almost every possible capacity over the years has advocated passionately for our students’ global experiences,” wrote RSA Dean Sarah Whiting, the William Ward Watkin Professor of Architecture in a letter to RSA alumni and friends. Casbarian, she added, “started doing so long before ‘globalism’ became a catchword.”

As an undergraduate, Casbarian ’69 was among the first students at RSA to travel with his class to analyze and absorb other environments, often across international boundaries. He has carried that legacy forward as the Harry K. and Albert K. Smith Professor of Architecture, former dean of RSA, founding director of the Rice School of Architecture Paris (RSAP) and director of RSA external programs.

“The original idea for RSAP came from my graduate studios in the mid-’90s when I was able to take entire classes to Nice (France),” Casbarian said. “We had contacts with the city who funded our stay for 10 days. We did intensive on-site research on issues identified by the city, and returned to Houston to finish the projects. I would then take the work back to Nice for exhibits and conferences. Students would keep asking for a longer experience.’

A Rice architecture student enjoys the view from a Mexico City skyscraper while visiting the city as part of a studio project at the Rice School of Architecture last spring.

Over the years, Rice graduate and undergraduate students have visited a host of far-flung cities, including Istanbul, New York, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Stockholm and Brasilia, Brazil, to immerse themselves in local cultures and understand how dwellers relate to their environments.

This year, for example, RSA students spread out for spring break, spending the week in Los Angeles, Mexico City and Shanghai. “Preliminary research into Mexico City provoked questions that only travel to the city itself could answer,” wrote junior students Alex Gregor and Peter Stone in a Rice News story about their experience.

“You can’t teach this from a book,” Casbarian said. “We now take the Internet for granted and with Google, we can see virtually every bit of the physical nature of any street. But until you’re there, until you live it on a daily basis, you don’t get the full experience of a city. You have to walk in the doors to see architecture come to life.”

“You’ve got to touch the doorknob,” O’Connor agreed. “You’ve got to feel it. You can’t just see it with your eyes, because that’s cold; you need to feel the warmth of actually being there.”

O’Connor and Casbarian’s friendship goes back many years. O’Connor was a business partner of Casbarian’s brother, Archie, a hotelier who revived New Orleans’ famous Arnaud’s Restaurant. Casbarian with his firm, Taft Architects, also designed a country house for O’Connor’s family.

“I admire his work and his philosophy and ethics,” said O’Connor, founder and CEO of the investment firm Ralph S. O’Connor & Associates. “I’ve followed what he’s done in getting students over to Paris and around the world — and off of South Main. It’s great to support a program that opens students’ eyes.

“John is one of Rice’s great professors, and I thought it would be nice to help honor him,” O’Connor said.

“I’m extremely humbled by this and very grateful for Ralph’s generosity,” Casbarian said. “But I take this as a gift to RSA in honor of the accomplishments we’ve collectively achieved in making the school great.”

For details on how to make a gift to the John J. Casbarian Travel Fund, visit http://arch.rice.edu/Alumni/Contribute-to-the-school/.

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.