Posted Thursday, October 22, 2020 - 11:58 AM

Pratt Mourns Visionary Architect William Katavolos & his Legacy as a Faculty Member & Alumnus


Courtesy of the Center for Experimental Structures

Longtime Pratt Institute faculty member William Katavolos, BID ‘49, has died at the age of 96. An architect, designer, and teacher, Katavolos served since the 1970s on the School of Architecture faculty and was the co-director of Pratt’s Center for Experimental Structures.

“Bill was an extraordinary thinker, and I had the great privilege of learning of his big ideas for the future of architecture and education,” said Pratt Institute President Frances Bronet. “We will miss his perpetual enthusiasm for learning, for making, and for teaching.”

Katavolos grew up on Long Island and later studied at Pratt before serving as a United States Air Corps Sergeant in the Philippines during World War II. As a member of a medical corps unit, he became familiar with the structural systems of the body which would make their way into his architecture and designs. He also engaged in a paper-based approach to design that would endure across his career and teaching, which involved multiple disciplines in his radical rethinking of architectural forms. Discover magazine described a 1994 visit to his studio on the Pratt campus: “Katavolos can’t explain anything important without a pen and a piece of paper. Any kind of paper will do: yellow, white, or lined, notebook or scrap. As he draws, he talks: of social movements, vast planned communities, surprises and revolutions.”

From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, he collaborated with fellow Pratt alumni Ross Littell and Douglas Kelley to produce a collection for Laverne International called “The New Furniture.” This included the 1952 “T” chair, now in leading museum collections such as the Louvre and Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The design was graceful in its minimal use of industrial and natural materials, with three metal legs supporting a leather sling seat. He later worked on partition systems for the Time-Life and Owens Corning buildings as well as with George Nelson Associates on a suspension ring system for the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, collaborating with designers including fellow future Pratt faculty member Lucia DeRespinis, BID ’52.

In 1960, he was featured in the Visionary Architecture exhibition at MoMA for his “chemical architecture” proposal which considered how recent discoveries in chemistry could lead to innovative forms through new materials. This work is now seen as prescient in anticipating ideas like growing buildings through nanotechnology. He later published his 1961 essay “Organics” as a “modern manifesto” on this chemical architecture in Ulrich Conrads’s influential Programs and Manifestoes on 20th-Century Architecture. He argued in it that a “new architecture is possible through the matrix of chemistry. Man must stop making and manipulating, and instead allow architecture to happen.” He envisioned houses that could grow “to certain sizes, subdivide or fuse for larger functions” and cities that “at night move like music to other moorings for cultural needs or to produce the socio-political patterns that the new life demands.”

In the 1950s through the 1960s, Katavolos taught in Pratt’s Industrial Design Department before becoming part of Pratt’s Undergraduate Architecture faculty in 1973, receiving tenure in the early 1980s. Although he retired from his full-time position in 2008, he continued to teach as a visiting professor. In a 2010 interview for the Pratt Undergraduate Architecture Digital Futures Group, he described how the School of Architecture transformed over the years through new technologies and thought leadership as it shifted from modernism to a contemporary embrace of inventive materials and digital modeling. 

Two major areas of work that he initiated at Pratt in the 1970s would continue over the following decades: particle physics and hydronics architecture. In this decade, he began exploring a model for masses of elementary particles, something which he continued refining over the next three decades. Throughout his tenure, he was deeply invested in the potential for great change in architecture through organic materials and engineering, such as liquid architecture that operated like a pumping heart. In the mid-1970s, he built the first mock-up of hydronics architecture, a pioneering work in this field.

In 2006, Deborah Gans, professor of undergraduate architecture, interviewed Katavolos for BOMB magazine and he explained: “If you are immersed in a medium such as water, you can see the surface that separates you from the atmosphere; it is a magical molecular layer that should not be cut, but penetration is permissible. Liquid mass is a building material in which form swallows function. It allows us to be incorporated rather than captured.” In a 2016 School of Architecture lecture, he discussed recent work on using the “liquefaction of mass, gasification of space, and solidification of surface” to create walls of enclosed liquids for forms that could house both people and hydroponic gardens. Expanding on these ideas, some of his most recent work included new drawings for an “autonomous house” which could grow its own food.

In Pratt’s School of Architecture, he co-founded the Center for Experimental Structures (CES) in 2000 with Haresh Lalvani, professor of undergraduate architecture. It was created to bridge what they saw as a gap between advanced and emerging technologies of building, drawing on the fundamental principles of design in nature and beyond to rethink the making and shaping of architectural structures and habitable space. Over the years, students in the Center’s Hydronics and Morphology Laboratories have worked with Katavolos and Lalvani to design structures that are among the first of their kind in the world, these projects ranging from liquid to hyperspace architecture. 

This forward-thinking approach to architecture and teaching, as well as Katavolos’s deep appreciation of the wonder of exploration, impacted generations of Pratt students and fellow faculty members. He embraced interdisciplinary learning and creativity throughout his long career, spanning fields including mathematics, physics, nanotechnology, organicism, and even classicism.

In 2012 he was honored with the Rowena Reed Kostellow Award, which annually recognizes Pratt Institute alumni whose work advances the principles of design. Rowena Fund Chair Tucker Viemeister said at the time that he was selected “because of his long dedication to multidisciplinary exploration, the beauty of his work, and because he is truly an amazing man.” At the 2019 Alumni Achievement Awards, Katavolos was celebrated with the Lifetime Achievement Award for his distinguished and inspirational legacy in education, architecture, and design.