Obituary: Paul Donnelly, celebrated architect, engineer, professor emeritus, 78

Paul Donnelly (right) talks with then-graduate student Zhang Ling in Givens Hall in 2001. (Photo: Washington University Archives)

Paul J. Donnelly, the Rebecca and John Voyles Chair in Architecture Emeritus at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, died Jan. 17, 2023, in Boston from squamous cell carcinoma. He was 78.

A registered architect and professional engineer, Donnelly was internationally known for exploring the relationship between architectural expression and emerging technologies. “Architecture is a social art, and the architect becomes a custodian of the public realm,” he told the WashU Record in 2001. “I also believe that it is our fundamental responsibility to build a world that honestly reflects our time, culture and history.”

Born and raised in Boston, Donnelly earned a bachelor’s degree in structural engineering from Northeastern University in 1968 and a master’s in engineering mechanics from Columbia University in 1970.

At Columbia, Donnelly first developed interests in contemporary art and architecture. He described walking past the Columbia architecture school as a sort of “eureka” moment.

“A light bulb just went off in my head,” Donnelly said. “It suddenly dawned on me that I was in the wrong arena — that what I was, was an architect.”

While starting his career as a consulting structural engineer, Donnelly also began taking classes at the Boston Architectural Center, earning his bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1978. He co-founded The Associated Architects and then established his own practice, Paul J. Donnelly Architects and Engineers. He later taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.

Donnelly joined WashU in 1996 and was named the inaugural Voyles Professor in 1999. He taught courses in advanced building systems as well as upper-level design studios focusing on emerging technology integration. He was named an emeritus professor in 2016.

“Paul was a gentleman, filled with curiosity and positive ambition,” said Heather Woofter, the Sam and Marilyn Fox Professor as well as director of the College of Architecture and Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design. “He was an ever-supportive presence in the school. He tirelessly believed in every student’s potential.”

While at WashU, Donnelly also served as vice president for advanced technologies at St. Louis-based architectural giant HOK, directing the firm’s Material Science Knowledge Group. He was a fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers; the Architectural Engineering Institute; and national civil engineering honor society Chi Epsilon.

Donnelly’s numerous honors include design prizes from the AIA and Tokyo’s Membrane Design Competition, as well as a Distinguished Professor Award from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.

Donnelly is survived by his wife, Adelaide; by siblings Louise Lydon and Brian Donnelly; and by many nieces and nephews, in-laws, close friends, neighbors, former colleagues and students. A third sibling, Lawrence P. Donnelly Jr., died in 2021.

A memorial service will take place at 11 a.m. April 8 at the MIT Chapel in Boston. Memorial donations are suggested to the Sam Fox School’s Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design.

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