Structural engineer Dr. Fazlur Rahman Khan is the subject for today’s Google Doodle. April 3, 2017 would be his 88th birthday. Khan is best known today for designing Chicago’s Sears Tower, known today as the Willis Tower.
“A humanitarian in his personal as well as professional life, he was inspired by the belief that his work had a positive impact and he encouraged other engineers not to lose track of the purpose of their profession,” Yasmin Sabina Khan, Khan’s daughter and the author of Engineering Architecture: The Vision of Fazlur R. Khan, told Google. “When he was named Construction’s Man of the Year, he reflected, ‘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.'”
Khan, often dubbed the “Einstein of structural engineering,” was born in Dhaka in what is now Bangladesh on April 3, 1929. He died on March 27, 1982 at age 52 after suffering a heart attack in Saudi Arabia.
Here’s what you need to know about Khan.
1. Khan’s Most Influential Innovation Was the ‘Tube’ Structural Designs
Khan’s central innovation to architectural design of tall buildings was his “tube” structural design system. Khan’s idea, as Mental Floss points out, was to design a building to be supported by its facade, rather than the concrete and steel on the inside.
For the John Hancock Center, which was designed in 1965, Khan employed a “trussed tube” structural system that broke from the usual techniques for designing tall buildings at the time. The design gave the 100-story John Hancock Center its distinctive X-brace along the exterior.
According to the Khan estate’s website, the other structural design systems he established were “the framed tube and the tube-in-tube, the trussed tube, the bundled tube, the composite system utilizing both concrete and structural steel.” Many of these systems are now common in high-rise design.
“It became a proven new structural concept waiting to be tested on a real building,” Khan wrote, notes Mental Floss. “John Hancock Center offered that opportunity.”
2. Khan Worked for the World-Famous Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Architectural Firm
Khan began studying civil engineering at the Bengal Engineering College Shibpur in India, but later earned his civil engineering degree at the Ahsanullah Engineering College, University of Dhaka, which is now the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. He won a Fulbright Scholarship and a scholarship from Pakistan’s government, which meant that he had enough money to travel to the U.S. and continue his studies. He arrived in the U.S. in 1952 and, three years later, he had two master’s degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He also received a PhD in structural engineering.
In 1955, he was hired by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, which brought him to Chicago. The firm is still known around the world, designing buildings in Beijing; Busan, South Korea; Gothenburg, Sweden; Los Angeles; New York; and Dubai.
As Hack A Day noted last year, Khan’s first completed building was the Chestnut-DeWitt building in 1964. On the outside, the building doesn’t look that remarkable, but its’ design put Khan’s “framed tube” idea to the test. He designed the building like a hollow rectangular tube. As Alex Weinberg, P.E. wrote on Hack A Day:
[Khan] would have to pierce this tube to make windows, but the building itself would behave like a large cantilevered box beam: The bending due to wind load would be resisted not only by the sides parallel to the wind, but by the perpendicular faces as well. The windward side would be forced into tension and the leeward side would be forced into compression. As a bonus, by pushing the structure out to the perimeter, he also provided more unobstructed column-free space on the interior of the building.
Other buildings Khan designed include the U.S. Bank Center in Milwaukee, One Shell Square in New Orleans, 140 William Street in Melbourne, Australia and the Hajj Terminal at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
3. Khan Designed the Willis Tower as a ‘Bundled Tube’ & It Was The Tallest Building in the World Until 1998
Khan, alongside architect Bruce Graham, designed the Sears Tower, which was completed in 1973 and was the tallest building in the world until 1998. In 2009, the building became known as the Willis Tower and its largest tenant is United Airlines. The building’s architecture stands 1,450 feet tall, but if you include the antennae, it stands at 1,729 feet tall.
Khan designed the Willis Tower as a “bundled tube” structure. As the blog Foundation, Concrete and Earthquake Engineering explains, this means that the building has several connected tube frames. He designed nine tubes of different heights, which gives Willis Tower an appearance known around the world. This design made the tower economically feasible because of the amount of steel or concrete needed to build a tall building.
The “bundled tube” design structure is still used today in megatall structures. Even the tallest building in the world today, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, employs the structure. That building stands 2,722 feet tall, with its antenna included.
As Khan’s daughter Yasmin explained to Google:
His pioneering work in skyscraper design was rejuvenating the design profession as he developed new ways of framing tall buildings, dramatically improving structural efficiency and economy. In 1965 he had initiated the “trussed tube” structural system with his design for Chicago’s 100-story John Hancock Center. By 1971 he was designing the world’s tallest building, the Sears Tower, using his latest innovation, the “bundled tube” (the Sears Tower, now Willis Tower, remained the “world’s tallest” for the next 22 years). His innovations subsequently formed the basis of tall building design.
4. There’s a Sculpture of Khan at the Willis Tower Lobby
Khan is immortalized at the Willis Tower thanks to a sculpture. According to Khan’s daughter Yasmin, the sculpture was commissioned by the Structural Engineers Association of Illinois (SEAOI) in 1988. It was designed by Spanish artist Carlos Marinas and is on display in the Willis Tower lobby, near the elevators where visitors buy tickets to the skydeck.
The SEAOI notes that the group started a fundraising effort in the mid-1980s, after Khan’s death. By 1987, they raised $20,000 for the sculpture. Marinas’ art includes the Chicago skyline, with a bust of Khan in the center.
On May 20, 1988, the sculpture was unveiled and Acting Mayor Eugene Sawyer declared it “Dr. Falzur Rahman Khan Day” in Chicago.
“This is not a memorial… but a celebration. Fazlur’s Memorial is all around us today. It is in the skylines of our cities, in the legacy of his work and teaching, but most importantly, it is in the minds and hearts of those who knew him,” SEAOI president Jon Boyd said of the sculpture at the time.
After a few years of being displayed outside the Cook County Administration Building, it was moved inside the Willis Tower in 1993.
5. He Took a Major Role in Fundraising for the Bengali People During the Bangladesh Liberation War
At the start of 1971, Bangladesh was still East Pakistan, a part of Pakistan cut off by India. The Bengali people sought to lead their own country, which later became today’s People’s Republic of Bangladesh. It also erupted into war, known as The Bangladesh Liberation War. The war began in March 1971 and ended in December 1971. The war created a humanitarian crisis, including the Bangladesh genocide. It’s estimated that as many as 3 million civilians died during the war.
As Khan’s website notes, the architect wanted to play a major role in helping his native country, even though he was busy with his work at SOM. He was the founding president for two groups in Chicago – the Bangladesh Emergency Welfare Appeal (BEWA) and the Bangla Desh Defense League (BDL). While BEWA was a fundraising effort for the humanitarian crisis, BDL supported the defensive forces and lobbied the American government to stop supporting West Pakistan.
The official address for both groups was Khan’s SOM office. Khan also held several meetings at his home. He also visited Bangladesh frequently during the 1970s.
“I feel very tragic about Bangladesh,” Khan said in a 1972 issue of Engineering News-Record. “The killing and the suffering there has affected me deeply.”
“My father was, undoubtedly, exceptionally gifted as an engineer and dedicated to the advancement of his field,” Yasmin Khan wrote of her father in 2011. “But by complementing his technical insight with human awareness and collaboration, he not only made his work more enjoyable for himself and more meaningful for his profession, but also transformed the nature of his accomplishments.”
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