Construction’s Man of the Year: Fazlur R. Khan

EN-R's Construction's Man of the Year

Engineering News-Record, February 10, 1972, “Construction’s Man of the Year: Avant garde high-rise designer Fazlur R. Khan”

To Fill You In  (Publisher’s letter at the front of the February 10, 1972 issue)

"To Fill You In," EN-R, February 10, 1972, "Construction's Man of the Year, Fazlur R. Khan"

“To Fill You In,” ENR, February 10, 1972, p. 5

This week’s cover story on Construction’s Man of the Year, Fazlur R. Khan (see p. 20), is the work of assistant editor Richard M. Kielar, who has been Engineering News-Record’s Khan-watcher since early last year.

Kielar and Khan first met at last year’s Man of the Year dinner. Subsequently, Kielar interviewed Khan for articles on his composite building design (ENR 6/3/71, p. 18) and his design of the Sears Tower, in Chicago (ENR 8/26/71, p. 16).

Another round of meetings came about when Kielar was assigned to write the Construction’s Man of the Year story on Fazlur Khan.

“We’ve talked in his office at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, in Chicago, and in the ENR editorial offices,” says Kielar, “at the Chicago Arts Club, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, at the restaurant atop the John Hancock Building, at various French restaurants in Chicago and at Sardi’s in New York.

“I’ve been to his seminars, lectures, meetings and his Saturday morning graduate class at the University of Illinois [actually, IIT].

“My main problem in researching the story was that I kept hearing the same things about Khan over and over again, that he’s a genius, that he’s open-minded, that he’s concerned with everything and everyone. No one offered any faults or shortcomings. The only fault I could find with him is that he doesn’t exercise, claims he doesn’t have the time.”

Kielar studied civil engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology, specializing in structural design. He joined the editorial staff of ENR after his graduation in June, 1970.

Eugene E. Weyeneth, Publisher


Construction’s Man of the Year: Fazlur R. Khan

Construction's Man of the Year: Fazlur R. Khan, ENR February 10, 1972

ENR, February 10, 1972, pp. 20-21

Combining technical genius with a sensitivity for people and the places in which they must live and work in our cities, structural engineer Fazlur Khan has come up with innovation after innovation that cut costs while simultaneously pushing buildings higher. His advances in structural design are contained in the diagonally braced John Hancock Building in Chicago; One Shell Plaza in Houston, the highest all-concrete building in the world; three composite buildings, in Houston, Chicago and New Orleans; and the Sears Tower, the world’s highest building, under construction in Chicago. All of these structures use the concept called tubular design, which Khan evolved over eight years ago.

Tubular design contributes to economical construction of tall buildings because it allows a building’s perimeter columns to serve as wind bracing, thus eliminating expensive internal wind bracing, which is typical of conventional design. Since development of the concept and its initial application by Khan in 1963 in a 43-story, reinforced concrete Chicago apartment building, tubular design appears in four of the world’s five tallest buildings: the 1,350-ft-high World Trade Center towers under construction in New York City, second highest buildings in the world; the 1,136-ft-high Standard Oil Co. (Indiana) Building under construction in Chicago, fourth highest; the 1,450-ft-high Sears Tower and the 1,105-ft-high completed John Hancock Building, Chicago, fifth highest. The third highest is the 1,250-ft-high Empire State Building, in New York City, which uses a conventional frame, topped out in 1931. The 42-year-old Khan has obviously influenced tall building design, for the World Trade Center Towers and the Standard Oil Building are the work of others.

Khan’s first steel version of the tube is the John Hancock Building. The design, completed in 1965, saved $15 million and resulted in a structural steel weight of 29 lb per sq ft for the 100-story structure. Originally, the plan for the Hancock project called for two separate buildings, one office building and one apartment building. Bruce Graham, Khan’s architectural partner in the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), where Khan is partner in charge of structural engineering, suggested the design of a single building containing both occupancies. Khan said it could be done by using the diagonally braced tube in which the diagonals achieve the tube concept by spreading the load to all perimeter columns, while simultaneously carrying their share of gravity loads.

Concrete milestone. Another milestone building is the 52-story One Shell Plaza. It uses the concept Khan calls tube-in-tube, which has closely spaced perimeter columns to handle the wind and an inner tube, consisting of the building’s core walls, to handle the dead load on the building’s interior. On that project, Houston developer Gerald Hines wanted to go as high as possible with a concrete building. Khan’s tube-in-tube design of lightweight concrete resulted in a cost per square foot comparable to that of a 35-story building. The building’s cost was $22 million.

On the Sears Tower, Khan’s structural design saved $10 million by using the modular tube system, a variation of tubular design. This building consists of nine continuous steel modules, each 75 ft square in plan. They form the tower’s 225 x 225-ft dimensions from grade to the 50th floor where two modules drop off. Two more drop off at the 66th and three at the 90th floor leaving only two that go the full 1,450-ft height. The modules have common interior columns that make up two diaphragms, trisecting the building in two directions to stiffen the structure. The weight of the $150-million, 110-story structure is 33 lb per sq ft. Khan estimates that conventional tubular design, without diaphragms, would have resulted in a steel frame weight of 60 to 70 lb per sq ft.

The composite buildings, a 24-story office tower in Houston, a 36-story tower in Chicago and a 50-story tower in New Orleans, represent Khan’s latest modification of the tube. This design uses concrete perimeter columns to handle the wind load and a steel interior frame to take the dead load. Actually, the perimeter columns are slender steel members that are part of the whole steel frame, but which are encased in concrete as the building goes up. On these buildings, Khan cut structural cost by 15% and steel requirements by 50%.

Such achievements, and, perhaps more than anything else, Khan’s blend of technical expertise and sense of esthetics, made him in 1970 the only engineer partner out of a total of 20 partners at SOM. All the others are architects. Says Khan, “The greatest step the building team has made in the past decade is that the engineer, as part of that team, is finally looking at the whole structure with architecture integrated as part of the whole. This group thinking results in a systems building that satisfies all requirements.”

Talks esthetics. One of Khan’s close friends, New York City structural engineer Paul Weidlinger, says, “Faz excels in engineering because he talks to architects. He can talk to them because he’s conscious of esthetics.”

With this kind of sensitivity and the general SOM philosophy that a structure shouldn’t be covered with a fake facade, Khan has developed his own philosophy of design. The governing factor in his theory is to use the natural beauty of mathematically derived form and the inherent beauty of material to create livable buildings for man.

“A building’s natural strength should be expressed,” says Khan. Probably Khan’s best expression of structure is the John Hancock Building. On its exterior, six sets of diagonals criss-cross each other along the faces of the building. Inside, these diagonals are visible in offices, apartments and restaurants. One Shell Plaza uses structural design for esthetic expression. Its perimeter columns vary in depth, some columns extending further out than others, to create a ripple effect along the exterior. The deeper columns support greater loads, depending on their particular location.

Khan also believes in a pure expression of a building’s material. He doesn’t believe in using granite slabs on a steel frame or attaching aluminum sheets to a concrete building.

Khan has definite ideas for implementing his philosophy of structural expression. He says, “Many architects are brought up to think that they are the only creators and that the engineers are technicians. This must stop. The engineer has to be an architect to the extent that the architect has to be an engineer so that in combination they produce the creative building.”

Partner Graham says, “Faz has an extremely rare understanding of architecture. In every phase of a project, we work on alternatives. He even gets involved in interiors and floor planning.” One of Khan’s New York City partners, Robert Cutler, says, “He appreciates an architect’s will. He’s very fluid.” Another Chicago partner, William Dunlap, says, “In our firm we have a cross-fertilization of ideas between architects and engineers. Faz doesn’t feel subordinated; he makes his ideas known.”

How to appreciate life. Although thoroughly steeped in engineering, Khan is not a slave to the technical. “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,” says Khan. This theory prompts Khan to say, “The social and visual impact of buildings is really my motivation for searching for new structural systems.”

Khan designs for the owner by cutting costs. Khan designs for people by giving close attention to what happens at ground level where people and a city’s facilities come together. By going high with his structures he leaves maximum space for a surrounding plaza.

EN-R, February 10, 1972, Construction's Man of the Year issue

ENR, February 10, 1972, p. 23

It’s because of this belief that Khan has no qualms about going as high as possible with buildings. “We need the area on the ground, not up in the sky. We can never hope to have cities with the appearance of those in Europe that are mostly low-rise,” he says.

Europe does in fact present a new frontier for Khan. European cites also need space for work and shelter, and the only way to go is up. With his partners, Khan has completed structural design of one building in the Netherlands and one in Paris. Construction of the Paris project is being delayed by the Paris planning commission.

European architects and engineers, however, are already familiar with Khan’s work through their visits to this country and through photographs illustrating articles, some of which Khan wrote, in various international publications. Through these accomplishments, he has become a sought-after speaker for professional meetings in Europe.

On one trip, Khan was scheduled for a single talk in London. He ended up giving eight talks in six countries, because before Khan left Chicago, word had spread in Europe that he would be in London. Engineering, as well as architectural groups from Paris, Stuttgart, Munich, Milan, and Vienna asked for his time.

Invariably, when Khan lectures on high-rise buildings, he first goes through a brief slide-supplemented history of tall buildings, and then explains the details of some of his innovations. Suddenly, shots of crowded, smog-covered Chicago and New York City appear on the screen. Khan then cuts to shots of buildings with tree-filled, fountain-filled, people-filled plazas. While this is going on Khan expounds on how designers have got to face up to urban problems and let their consciences push them in that direction.

Structural empathy. That the 110-story Sears Tower breaks a height record was not Khan’s motivation. Going that high was simply the best solution to a problem. Says Khan, “Sears wanted 3.7 million sq ft of space. The building went 1,450 ft because we at SOM wanted to maintain a decent environment at ground level, which is why the building has a plaza that will be dotted with art pieces.”

Khan’s thought process is based on empathy for structures. He says, “When thinking design, I put myself in the place of a whole building, feeling every part. In my mind I visualize the stresses and twisting a building undergoes.”

Tubular design was born from this empathy. Partner Graham asked Khan what the most economical building would be. Khan said one with thin solid walls, like a tube, so that it reacted to wind like a vertical cantilever and thus eliminated shear racking. He then said, “But we’ve got to live in it, so we punch small holes in the tube for windows, getting approximately the same structural effect.”

Graham liked the idea and both went ahead with the plan for the 43-story DeWitt Chestnut apartment building. But the owner was skeptical. He called for a meeting with SOM. Into the meeting went Khan in his dark suit, white shirt and brightly colored tie, with his charts, floor plans and data to economically justify the structure. Khan, reasoning in his soft tone, convinced the client to go ahead. It’s a mark of his talent that he can explain hard and technical facts in terms a layman can understand.

No ceremony. An acquaintance of Khan for eight years, John Tishman, executive vice president of Tishman Realty & Construction Co., Inc., New York City, which acted as construction manager on the John Hancock and is owner and contractor for the Chicago composite building, says, “Khan stands on no ceremony whatsoever. He is constantly willing to reevaluate his own decisions and works very closely with contracting experts. We have tremendous respect for Faz, particularly his unusual designs and innovations.” Says Donald Smith, New York City SOM partner, “He’s a giant but he doesn’t come on that way.”

An urbane figure in appearance and style, Khan stands 5 ft 7 in. He walks sprightly and quickly, immediately getting to what’s at hand, whether it be paperwork or a meeting, all with overwhelming casualness.

Although he studied English in school as a child in Calcutta, he has a slight accent. Frequently using his hands like a conductor, sometimes with a slide rule in hand, to supplement his precise vocabulary that is devoid of vulgarity, but is spiced with vernacular and some slang, he is given to a moderate tempo. Smiling frequently, Khan runs the gamut of topics, from politics to Shakespeare and Solzhenitsyn to the tragedy of Bangladesh.

Says Khan, “I like to consider myself a citizen of the world. If we don’t have a sense of compassion on a world basis and on a man-to-man basis, we’re never going to get out of the wars we’re in.” Khan is a citizen of this country and a native of what until last December was East Pakistan. “I feel very tragic about Bangladesh. The killing and the suffering there has affected me deeply,” he says.

Dacca is Khan’s birthplace. His father was a well-known scholar and mathematician, who held the highest position in the country’s educational system.

Mystical and mechanical. When Khan and his father were discussing whether he should study physics or engineering, his two choices, his father suggested that engineering would be better because it demanded discipline. Khan admits, though, that at the time the engineering challenges in India and East Pakistan looked more promising than the challenges in physics, and this influenced his decision.

“I liked physics because of its mystical and abstract aspects,” says Khan, “but I was good in mathematics and always tinkering with something mechanical.

After completing his undergraduate work at the Bengal Engineering College, where he graduated at the top of his class, he worked for two years as an assistant engineer for the highway department and taught at the University of Calcutta. In 1952 he qualified as a Fulbright scholar, and also won a scholarship from the Pakistani government. As a result he enrolled at the University of Illinois, Urbana, for three years. He completed enough credits for a master’s in applied mechanics and a master’s and doctorate in structural engineering.

Khan got his job at SOM by chance. After receiving his doctorate, at which time he was considering offers from top engineering firms across the country, he met a friend on the street who worked at SOM. The friend told Khan of the exciting projects in the SOM office. Khan went directly to SOM, had an interview, got an offer and immediately accepted at a salary considerably less than any other offer.

He accepted the SOM offer because the firm gave him responsibility immediately. “My first project was complete charge of seven prestressed bridges at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. Those other firms told me I’d start on some beam analysis. I didn’t feel I would get any experience before I had to return to East Pakistan in a year and a half, a stipulation of the scholarships.”

In the fall of 1957 Khan did return to East Pakistan. He did consulting work and later took a job as executive engineer with the Karachi Development Authority. The job had great status, but because he became too involved in administrative tasks, Khan began to feel the position kept him from the design work he wanted. He wrote to SOM, received an affirmative response, and he and his wife returned to Chicago in June, 1960.

First jolt. Initially he worked as an assistant engineer on a low-rise concrete building and a 22-story steel structure. Khan’s first job as project engineer was the 38-story Brunswick office building in Chicago. For it, he proposed the first shear wall-frame interaction design, a forerunner of tubular design. The building’s shear wall is connected to the outer frame with floor diaphragms to provide a bracing system against wind. “The Brunswick Building is built like a watch in the sense that we looked at everything that could ever go wrong,” says Khan. As a result, he produced 500 charts to show its behavior under all conditions. This job also gave Khan his first professional jolt.

After lunch one day, Khan says, he received a phone call from the SOM chief engineer who said that the building was being shored because it was on the verge of collapse. Large cracks were spotted in the floor slabs. “I really felt nervous,” says Khan, who is normally composed and confident.

Immediately Khan and others from SOM went to the building. To Khan’s relief, the cracks turned out to be slots cast in the slab’s corners, according to design, to relieve stress that was expected to develop during the building’s vertical expansion and contraction. “Boy, was I relieved. It was my first project and I thought my last.”

Now, as partner, working with an engineering staff of 35, Khan says, “Wherever there is crisis, that’s where I am.”

No ulcer, no tension. Khan says, “Every man must have a philosophy in this age of tension and aggression. I look at everything in my life on a very philosophical level. I don’t look at my work as personal goals, but I look at it as something that I enjoy and something that has social value.” Khan boasts that he has no ulcers or nervous tension even though he works many Saturdays and Sundays and many weeks travels from 2,000 to 4,000 miles.

EN-R, February 10, 1972, Construction's Man of the Year issue

ENR, February 10, 1972, p. 25

On Saturdays, he teaches at the Illinois Institute of Technology as an adjunct professor of architecture. He works on projects with students, such as a 110-story concrete tube that Khan predicts will soon be reality (see above).

Despite his tight schedule, he gets in meetings of the Chicago Committee on High-Rise Buildings, of which he is the founding chairman; the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE); Mayor Richard Daley’s Advisory Committee on Codes; and the steering committee of the Joint Committee on Tall Buildings, established by the ASCE and the International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering. He is sole author and with others of over 50 technical papers.

Khan and his Austrian-born wife, Liselotte, and his 11-year-old daughter, Yasmin, live in a high-rise apartment building where Khan enjoys freedom from mowing a lawn or painting.

“I have nothing to complain about; that’s the problem. Even with people I quarrel with I’ve found a positive side,” says Khan. When asked what Khan did when he became frustrated, college friend and one-time associate at SOM, John Marin, said, “He philosophized.”


Editorials, p. 68

Fazlur Khan: Man of the Year

In four of the past seven years, Engineering News-Record has included Fazlur R. Khan among the several cited in an annual editorial recognizing construction’s significant newsmakers.

In 1965, the then 35-year-old Khan gained editorial recognition here for his structural design of Chicago’s 100-story John Hancock Building, tallest building since the Empire State and forerunner of the World Trade Center towers as a steel-framed building using the tubular concept of design.

In 1968, Khan made his mark with Houston’s One Shell Plaza, another application of the tube idea, standing as the tallest reinforced concrete building in the world.

Last year, ENR again cited the ingenious young engineering partner of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Chicago A&E organization for his role in structural design of Chicago’s cluster of tubes heading toward a new world’s building height record, the 1,450-ft Sears Tower.

And this year (ENR 1/6 p. 20), Khan made our laurels list for his buildings of composite design, on which he is cutting tonnage and dollars by encasing light, steel perimeter columns in concrete to achieve a modification of the tube design.

In singling out Khan as Man of the Year (see cover story) ENR’s editors were impressed, of course, by his innovation upon innovation in the field of structural engineering of high-rise buildings. But beyond the height records and the weight savings and cost savings of his design, beyond the technical genius of the man, a sensitive student of the urban environment stands forth.

Khan is an engineer with full awareness of the demand of today’s cities upon architecture, plus the capability for meeting architecture’s demands upon engineering. As an equal now among several architect partners, he plays a key design-team role in decisions at the earliest stages of design. And well he might, for he has learned as a structural engineer to think like an architect: “The social and visual impact of buildings is really my motivation for searching for new structural systems,” he says.

As an adjunct professor of architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology for the past 11 years, Khan has thrilled to the exchange of ideas he has built between students and practice. As a contributor to professional literature and worker on professional committees, he has built a reputation that has become worldwide in relatively few years.

Fazlur Khan is a leader among the world’s designers of great buildings. In this new era of the skyscraper, in this time of concern for human safety, comfort and convenience in high-rise homes and offices, he is a philosophical leader of thought. He is construction’s Man of the Year.

6 Responses to Construction’s Man of the Year: Fazlur R. Khan



  2. Pingback: Fazlur Rahman Khan: The Man Behind Every Modern Skyscraper

  3. haleem baloch says:


  4. Safiq Khan says:

    Yes indeed and unfortunately now we can’t get the Bangladeshi talents to flourish because of our pathetic geo-political environments

  5. Mohammed S Haque says:

    A great person who was born in BANGLADESH.

  6. Pingback: Construction’s Man of the Year « Yasmin Sabina Khan

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