Often in history, there comes along a person who understands, innovates and changes the world around us. The field of Architecture and Structural Engineering is filled with such bright minds. Fazlur Rahman Khan also known as FR Khan, born in the year 1929 in Dhaka was a visionary and one of the brilliant structural engineers of the 20th century.
He passed his Matriculation Examination from Bulleyganj Government High School, Kolkata in 1944 and was then admitted to the Presidency College.
FR Khan graduated from Shibpur Engineering College of Kolkata in 1950 with the 1st position and a 1st class degree. He began his career as a teacher in Ahsanullah Engineering College, Dhaka and was then awarded a Fulbright Fellowship and a Ford Foundation Scholarship in 1952 to pursue his higher studies in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the US.
FR Khan is often referred to as the ‘Einstein of Structural Engineering’. Khan began his career in the US at the internationally renowned architectural and engineering firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) in Chicago.
By 1960, he was working out innovative ways of structural steel, concrete and composite systems. His revolutionary ‘tube system’ innovation that uses all the exterior walls of a tall structure which is similar to a thin walled tube changed the way in which skyscrapers were being built at that time.
In 1962, while he was designing the 38-storied Brunswick Building in Chicago, he developed the ‘tube in tube’ concept where he worked out a way in which shear wall and frame interactions could resist sideways (lateral) forces.
He later used this technique for the construction of the 52-storied One Shell Plaza Building in Houston.
His major breakthrough came when he devised a way of connecting all four sides of a building with diagonal exterior columns. The concept was used in the 1965 Hancock building which reached 100 stories, making it the tallest building in the world at that time.
The Hancock Center and the 110-storied, 1,468 feet, Sears Tower built in 1974 drew worldwide attention to the major advancement made by the Americans in skyscraper construction technology; thus the name FR Khan became the centre of attention in the world of structural engineering. Contained in a black aluminium skin with bronze-tinted, glare-reducing glass and with a total floor space of 4.4 million square feet, Sears Tower was perfect and gigantic by any standards. It broke all the records of the time.
Another significant international structure of FR Khan includes the Hajj Terminal Building at the Jeddah International Airport in Saudi Arabia. It is an enormous structure covering nearly one square kilometre of area. It had a tent-like appearance and had the largest roof covering in terms of surface covered when it was built. Khan used fabric-tension roof in designing the terminal of the airport. It was unique on its terms because he fused architecture and engineering, form and function while fabricating the structure. It was a demonstration of the superfluity of structural knowledge Khan held in his brain.
FR Khan was not only a brilliant engineer but also a professional leader and a mentor to young and upcoming engineers. While he was involved in Chicago, he never forgot his roots. Khan was active beyond engineering in his community.
For many years, he served on the board of trustees for the condominium development in Chicago where he lived. The biggest social contribution which can be attributed to Khan was the time when he stood up for his motherland in the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war. While the aggressors from West Pakistan slaughtered and starved millions of people in Bangladesh, Khan founded a Chicago-based organization, the Bangladesh Emergency Welfare Appeal, to aid the people in his homeland.
Khan’s younger brother Zillur said: ‘My brother was not only a creative structural engineer; he was a philosopher, visionary educator and a humanist. As my guide, he always told me, “Think logically and find the relationships which exist in every system, because it will help you understand nature itself, making living more meaningful and exciting."’ This statement itself can be used to fathom out the depth of knowledge Fazlur possessed.
He once said, ‘The technical man must not be lost in his own technology; he must be able to appreciate life, and life is all about art, drama, music, and most importantly, people.’
FR Khan met his untimely fall in a heart attack on a business trip in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on March 27, 1982. By that time he had only reached the age of 53 and yet he was able to become a general partner in SOM, the only engineer holding that high position at the time.
His body was returned to the US and was buried in Chicago. After his death, as a tribute to his work, the city of Chicago named the intersection of Franklin and Jackson Streets, located at the foot of the Sears Tower, ‘Fazlur R. Khan Way’ in his honour.
In 1999, Engineering News-Record listed him as one of the world’s top 20 structural engineers of the last 125 years. The Chicago Junior Chamber of Commerce had named him Chicagoan of the Year in Architecture and Engineering.
Some of the other honours he received include the :
• Wason Medal (1971) and Alfred Lindau Award (1973) from the American Concrete Institute
• Thomas Middlebrooks Award (1972) and Ernest Howard Award (1977) from ASCE
• Alumni Honor Award (1972) from the University of Illinois,
• Kimbrough Medal (1973) from the American Institute of Steel Construction
• Oscar Faber Medal (1973) from the Institution of Structural Engineers (UK)
• AIA Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement (1983) and Aga Khan Award for Architecture (1983) from the American Institute of Architects
• John Parmer Award (1987) from the Structural Engineers Association of Illinois
• Honorary Doctorate Degrees from North-western University and Lehigh University in 1980 in 1973
In 2006, he was inducted into the Illinois Engineering Hall of Fame (sponsored by the Illinois Engineering Council).
Fazlur Rahman Khan achieved something which ushered a renaissance in skyscraper construction technology all over the world. He is often termed as the Father of Modern Skyscrapers. Any young and upcoming engineer from Bangladesh can take pride from his work and follow his footsteps in structural engineering and learn from his personality.
The story was first published in INTELLECT Issue no.1, dated April 2012.