Match makes the world RSA’s oyster

Ralph O’Connor matches donations to Casbarian Travel Fund for architecture students

Scores of generous donors and a gracious matching gift from Houston entrepreneur and philanthropist Ralph O’Connor have assured architecture students at Rice University of the opportunity to travel as part of their studies for years to come.

O’Connor’s $1 million dollar match puts the John J. Casbarian Travel Fund, part of Rice’s Centennial Campaign, over its initial $2 million goal. That will serve as the basis for an endowment that gives students the means to understand architecture’s impact not only beyond the hedges but also across borders for years to come.

John Casbarian

John Casbarian

“Architecture and urbanism cannot be understood only through images and Web searches,” said RSA Dean Sarah Whiting, the William Ward Watkin Professor of Architecture. “This fund permits our students to experience this firsthand and bring it back to the school.”

During this year’s spring break, students at the Rice School of Architecture (RSA) will travel with their seminars and studios to Chile, Hong Kong, Berlin, Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago and Basel, Switzerland, where they’ll work with local architects and other experts to understand the dynamics of each built environment.

The fund is named for RSA stalwart Casbarian ’69, the school’s Harry K. and Albert K. Smith Professor of Architecture. Casbarian is former RSA dean, founding director of the Rice School of Architecture Paris and director of the school’s external programs. He’s also one of the first beneficiaries of the school’s commitment to travel, having taken part in an early adventure abroad as an undergraduate at Rice.

“This is a wonderful contribution to the school,” Casbarian said. “It will enable our students to see the world. While I’m extremely grateful for the large donations, what’s really gratifying is how the small donations have come in, particularly from recent graduates. To me, that’s a measure of how committed they are to the school and to the travel program.”

Ralph O'Connor

Ralph O'Connor

He noted not all the contributors were architecture students. “There were a few donations from students who were at Lovett College when my wife, Natalye Appel, and I were masters,” he recalled.

One such came from a pair of his former charges, Bryan Hassin ’02 and Katie Barrett ’04, now married.

“John had a really positive influence on our lives and our Rice experiences,” Hassin said. “I graduated during John’s first year as master, and the way it worked out, I was the first student to walk across the stage. I was the first he announced when he was calling out graduate names.”

Commencement didn’t end their association, though. “We stayed in touch, stayed involved and spent time in Houston and abroad with John and Natalye, and found them to be fantastic people as well as fantastic members of the Rice community,” said Hassin, chief executive officer of Houston-based Smart Office Energy Solutions. “As someone who’s lived abroad multiple times, I always loved the fact that John had instigated this travel program for the School of Architecture. I think it’s phenomenal that we motivate our architecture students to get out there and see the world, not just the microcosm that we know here.

“When I heard there was going to be something in honor of John and tied to travel, it was a no-brainer for my wife and me to help make it happen.”

O’Connor, an emeritus member of the Rice Board of Trustees, was also gratified by the response. “It was great, though I was kind of surprised that it went as fast as it did,” said the founder and CEO of the investment firm Ralph S. O’Connor & Associates. “It just shows that people in the community know Mr. Casbarian has been a solid guy in the architecture school for a long time.”

The fund remains active and welcomes donations. For details, visit


About Mike Williams

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