Art of the Skyscraper: The Genius of Fazlur Khan
Dr. Ahmed S. Khan
Senior Professor
Dept of EET
DeVry University
Addison, IL

Dr. Fazlur Rahman Khan was an outstanding structural engineer of the twentieth century. His contributions and innovative approach to tall building design and attention to aesthetic details to the field have been so significant that he has been called “the Einstein of structural engineering” and “the father of modern skyscraper.” For his contributions to the field, he has not only received highest international awards for engineering but also recognized for his architectural creativity. To honor this world-famous engineer, a chair has been established in Dr. F R Khan’s name at Lehigh University. The Structural Engineers Association, Illinois, has installed a Khan Sculpture in Sears Tower; and the city of Chicago has named one of the streets in downtown Chicago “Fazlur R. Khan Way.” Had there been a Nobel Prize in engineering, he surely would have won it.
Dr. Fazlur Rahman Khan revolutionized the construction of tall buildings by inventing “framed tube,” “braced tube” and “bundled tube” structural systems, which made it possible to construct the 100-story John Hancock Center and the 110-Story Sears Tower in Chicago (a building so tall that it needed Federal Aviation Administration approval before the construction could commence) using minimum amount of steel. Dr. F.R. Khan’s structural system inventions play a fundamental role in the design of modern high rise buildings. His efforts were not only limited to structural engineering but also played an important role in the form and architecture of the buildings he worked on.
In Art of the Skyscraper: The Genius of Fazlur Khan, the author, Dr. Mir M. Ali, professor of architectural structures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, offers a vivid portrait of Fazlur Rahman Khan (1929-1982). In 16 chapters spread over 240 pages that include many illustrations and pictures, the author has done a marvelous job of telling the story of a highly technical man in both technical and non-technical manners.
In the first few chapters of the book, Professor Ali discusses Dr. F. R. Khan’s childhood, youth, education, and early years of his professional career. In the latter chapters, he addresses the development of tall buildings in Chicago, and highlights Dr. F. R. Khan’s innovations, contributions and leadership role in the design and development of tall buildings. He focuses on the period from 1950 to the early 1980s when Dr. Khan worked mostly at the Chicago offices of Skidmore, Owens & Merrill (SOM), one of the largest and most renowned architectural firms in the world. Dr. Khan’s innovative contributions to structural engineering enabled SOM to become a leader in the development of tall buildings. The author also portrays Dr. Khan as a lover of humanity and a deeply introspective and spiritual man (Chapters 9 and 13).
Dr. Ali is uniquely qualified to tell the story of Dr. Khan. A structural engineer himself, Professor Ali had been the chairman of the structures division of the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign from 1993 to 2003. He knew Dr. Khan personally and also worked with him on some of his projects at SOM.
Reflecting on the reasons as to why Dr. F. R. Khan selected the University of Illinois for pursuing graduate studies, Professor Ali writes: “Fazlur R. Khan went to University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign in 1952 to pursue graduate studies in structural engineering. He was attracted to this institution because of its worldwide reputation in the field of engineering. This reputation was due to names of renowned people like Hardy Cross, Thomas Shedd, N.M. Newmark, and Ralph Peck within its faculty… Khan departed for Urbana-Champaign from Dhaka, an old city in the heart of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan). He had studied engineering at Bengal Engineering College Calcutta, India, and moved to Dhaka after the creation of East Pakistan” (p.20). He further writes: “It is not known how Khan got his admission to the University of Illinois, since it was extremely competitive for foreigners --- particularly for those coming from a new country like Pakistan.” (p.21).
The author provides an account of the academic brilliance of Dr. F. R. Khan, specifically how he completed three graduate degrees in a short span of three years. Dr. Ali writes: “Khan got enough academic credits by taking courses in both civil engineering and theoretical and applied mechanics simultaneously to get two Master’s degrees in two years. He completed his PhD thesis in the very short time of one year after that”. When Chester Siess (Khan’s adviser) was asked about how Khan managed to get three graduate degrees in three years and how the Civil Engineering Department allowed that to happen, he replied, “Faz was unusually brilliant and we could make an exception for someone like him” (p.24).
Professor Ali has also included a number of examples of Dr. F. R. Khan’s contribution to the field of structural engineering, providing technical details with relevant background information. The author presents detailed description of Dr. Khan’s “braced tube” and “bundled tube” approaches, which are widely known in the field of advanced structural analyses. The author also discusses some of his contributions that are significant but not well known to the general public. Regarding Dr. Khan’s contributions in designing buildings in seismic zones, the author writes: “A further innovation by Khan, and something that is not as well known, is his original concept of dissipating energy as the lower storey of buildings in seismic zones…He thought of a shock-absorbing soft-story concept in which a ‘stability wall,’ consisting of neoprene pads, and deformable cables would be used in the lowest most level in a predetermined fashion such that during an earthquake the lower level would dissipate energy and isolate the upper floors from any damage…Thus designing the entire building to resist high earthquake forces, the bottom story of the building is allowed to distort with earthquake, thereby screening out most of the forces there. The upper part of the structure remains unaffected and behaves as an elastic system, whereas the lower story behaves as an elasto-plastic bilinear system.” An earthquake in Yugoslavia in the 1960s in which the bottom story of many buildings was excessively damaged, when brought to Dr. Khan’s attention by a colleague, led to this innovation.
In the process of writing the book, Professor Ali interviewed a number of Dr. Khan’s colleagues, friends and advisers and included their impressions about his abilities. Dr. Khan’s co-adviser for graduate studies, Narbey Khachaturian had this to recall: “He (Khan) was a universal man, a man who would look at all aspects --- social, architectural, aesthetic, you name it – the entire universe. Khan was also a very good and perceptive listener. He could grasp very quickly what you would tell him. He had that unusual mental ability.”
Professor Ali reveals that Dr. Khan was aware of the fact that his success was not solely due to his own genius and expertise, but also due to the help and collaboration of his associates, fellow architects and engineers. In 1981, Dr. Fazlur Rahman Khan paid tribute to his advisor for his success and innovations. He said: “It is not always easy to pinpoint the most important reason for my occasional successes in innovations…I have come to realize that three years I spent at the University of Illinois first under the advisorship of Thomas Shedd, but more significantly under the research environment and advisorship of Chester Siess have indeed been the most significant and responsible factors in shaping my attitudes and approach to structural design” (p.20).
Dr. F. R Khan was far more than an innovative structural engineer; he was also a philosopher, a thinker and a humanitarian. His designs not only reflect technical innovations, but also meet the local demands and cultural expectations. He paid attention to the minute details of his designs. Commenting on his own thinking process about design, Dr. Khan said: “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.” Dr. Khan also made sure that his designs were people-friendly too; he placed people first because people were so close to his heart. In this regard, the author has reproduced a comment by Engineering News-Record (1972): “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, people-filled plazas. While this is going on Khan expounds on how designers have to face up to urban problems and let their consciences push them in that direction.”
Professor Ali has also presented the other facets of Dr. Khan’s personality: a philosopher, a thinker, an educator, and a prolific writer. He had a keen interest in the people, art and music and literature. In 1972, he said, “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.”
Dr. Fazlur Rahman Khan has left behind a legacy of tall building design. In his design he believed in logic, truth, objectivity, and rationality. He practiced collaboration. His innovative ideas are present in the form of tall buildings in the major cities of the world today. One Magnificent Mile and Onterie Center, John Hancock Center, The Sears Tower, all in Chicago; World Trade Center, Hong Kong; and the Hajj Terminal, Jeddah, are some of his best known completed projects.
“Art of the Skyscraper: The Genius of Fazlur Khan” is an important book on the life and accomplishments of one of the greatest structural engineers of the twentieth century whose influence continues today. Professor Ali has presented a tribute to the brilliance of Dr. F R Khan that will keep his memory everlasting. He has done a wonderful job of combining the biography of Dr. Fazlur Rahman Khan with the technical problems and challenges associated with the construction of tall buildings. It is a fascinating story of the genius of Dr. Fazlur Rahman Khan; a must read for all technical and non-technical minds; and an invaluable resource for students, architects, and engineers.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.