Fazlur Rahman Khan, Ph.D. (1929-1982)

April 2011 » Columns » STRUCTURAL HISTORY
Christina M. Zweig

In 1929, Fazlur Rahman Khan, Ph.D., was born in what is now Dhaka, Bangladesh. During the following 52 years, he became one of the most progressive structural engineers of the 20th century, while helping usher in a new era of collaboration between structural engineers and architects.

Once in the United States, Khan achieved three degrees in only three years from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana — a master’s in structural engineering, a master’s in theoretical applied mechanics, and a Ph.D. in structural engineering. He then went on in 1961 to become a participating associate in A/E firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM) as a revolutionary idea was forming in his mind. The population explosion, beginning with the baby boom of the 1950s, created widespread concern about the amount of available living space. Khan had the solution — building up! The tallest building in the world at that time was the Empire State Building, a massive 102-story steel-frame structure. Kahn would top this building, and in his quest to do so would re-shape the concept of super-tall buildings and man’s ability to live and work in the sky.

By 1963, the DeWitt-Chestnut apartment building was completed, the first of Khan’s designs to apply tube-frame construction — an innovative technique that used the outside of the building as the support structure. Variations on the tube design include the “framed tube,” the “trussed tube,” and the “bundled tube.” Tube construction not only led to safe construction at new heights, but also allowed tall buildings to escape the traditional box-like structures that previous methods dictated. Trussed-tube construction and X-bracing also made buildings more efficient. This technique, employed in construction of the John Hancock Center, used only 145 kilograms of steel per square meter, whereas the Empire State Building required 206 kilograms of steel per square meter.

The height of the Empire State Building finally was exceeded in 1972 with completion of the north tower of the World Trade Center — not one of Khan’s designs, but one that used his tube-frame construction technique to reach 1,368 feet. Just two years later, in 1974, SOM’s design for the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) topped the World Trade Center. This 1,451-foot-tall structure is to this day the tallest building in the United States, and the fifth tallest structure in the world.

In the 1970s, computer methods for structural analysis were just beginning to be used on a large scale. SOM was at the center of these new developments, with undeniable contributions from Khan. Although Khan fully embraced this new technology, his cautious and methodical nature was seen in his insistence on laboratory tests at the University of Illinois for a three-span continuous transfer girder, measuring 8 feet wide by 24 feet deep, for the Brunswick Building in Chicago. Khan believed the scale of what he created was still beyond the capacity for which current analytical theory could be trusted.

Khan has been called a “structural engineer saint” and “the Einstein of structural engineering,” as well as received countless other glowing accolades for his professional accomplishments. In 1982, the year of his untimely death from heart attack, he was posthumously honored with the International Award of Merit in Structural Engineering from the International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering, and he received a Distinguished Service Award from the AIA Chicago Chapter. In 1983, he received the AIA Institute Honor for Distinguished Achievement, and was honored with the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, “for the Structure of the Hajj Terminal, An Outstanding Contribution to Architecture for Muslims,” one of Khan’s last creations. The Structural Engineers Association of Illinois awarded him the John Parmer Award in 1987, and he even had a Chicago street named after him in 1998.

His outstanding compassion was evident in the 1960s and 1970s as he took a lead role in humanitarian relief efforts while Bangladesh struggled to achieve political independence. He founded the Bangladesh Defense League with architect Stanley Tigerman, and also founded the Bangladesh Emergency Welfare Appeal Organization.

In 1971, when selected as “Construction’s Man of the Year” by Engineering News-Record, he said in a statement definitive of his nature and career: “The technical man must not be lost in his own technology; he must be able to appreciate life, and life is art, drama, music, and most importantly, people.” This same quotation was later commemorated on a plaque in the Onterie Center (446 E. Ontario, Chicago).

Christina M. Zweig is a freelance writer in Fayetteville, Ark. She can be contacted at christy00821@yahoo.com.


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