Fazlur Khan

Written by Yasmin Sabina Khan, his daughter

When I was a young girl, around eight or nine, my father made up a math game for us to play in the car. He would think of a number (say, 6) and I would figure out how he had reached that number using a certain number of 4’s, for example. That is, how to get to 6, using four 4’s. (The answer is [4+4]/4 + 4 = 6.) These puzzles, as I remember them, were difficult enough to be challenging but suited to my abilities so that they could be solved fairly quickly. Most important, this car game was fun. So much so that we often played it with a girlfriend of mine—adding competition to the game, she and I would try to be the first to find a solution.

Fazlur Khan with his daughter Yasmin Khan, also a structural engineer (courtesy Yasmin Khan)

My father had a talent for making learning fun, and he seems to have been able to infuse work at SOM with interest and enjoyment in a similar fashion. When I was writing my book about him, Engineering Architecture: The Vision of Fazlur R. Khan, the stories I heard from his former colleagues consistently recalled this aspect of working with my father. When he explained the tubular system in the early 1960s, an architect involved in the design of Chestnut-DeWitt Apartments in Chicago, the concrete building that initiated the framed tube, told me, “it seemed really exciting. . . . He was full of creative ideas.” Engineers felt the same way. My father’s enthusiasm for each new system, they recalled, was irresistible.

I also heard from his former associates that he knew how to orchestrate community work and “get the best out of people.” One engineer who worked with my father on numerous projects told me that he made designers feel they were a part of the effort, sharing in the development of ideas. Despite long hours, at times, and considerable pressure, people were motivated to work together to achieve a goal. What was perhaps most amazing to me, was the wide range of people who remembered my father and his influence with affection; engineers, architects, material specialists, material fabricators, contractors, members of professional organizations in which he participated. “His easy way of dealing with people,” wrote the members of one group, combined with his “clarity of thought in technical matters,” drew them together.

Memories such as these strengthen my belief that my father’s character and values shaped his career. He must have felt the same way. Near the end of his life he had a chance to look back on his life and career for an oral history project. A recording was made over two days as he talked about his childhood, his university experience, and his years at SOM. He credited my grandfather, in particular, with encouraging him as a boy. My grandfather has a reputation in the family for his patience and gentleness, along with the guidance he provided for others. He valued education highly—himself teaching mathematics, writing math textbooks, and serving as an administrator for public education—and he knew how to inspire students. He must have recognized that my father, though not an eager student as a young child, was quite bright; in any case, he assumed responsibility for guiding his education. My father fondly remembered the time they spent together over the years. It seems that the schoolwork they spent the most time with was math; my grandfather would make up additional problems for my father to solve, or suggest nuances to a particular problem. Approaching homework exercises in this way, rather than just solving given problems, imbued them with greater interest. “I always had a feeling,” my father recalled, that “I was somehow enjoying it beyond the curriculum requirement.” Learning was a pleasurable experience; it also prepared him for critical thinking later on.

At the same time, my grandfather talked with him about life. “I was always philosophically inclined,” he remembered, “because my father used to sit down and talk to me.” They talked about helping people, about generosity, compassion, and humility, and about learning. “After all, learning for what, that eventually we should be able to help people.” These discussions, together with my grandfather’s example, must have contributed to the calm demeanor my father brought to his work.

One of the personal strengths that influenced his career, I believe, was the confidence and self-assurance he acquired during the first thirty years of his life. By this I have in mind both his personal grounding and his educational training. As a youth he developed a perspective on life that would serve him well, and in his twenties he strengthened this personal footing by traveling and meeting people of different cultures and different backgrounds, listening to music, reading widely, from existentialism to writings about beauty, and learning about art (during a visit together to New York one summer, I was amazed by his familiarity with the paintings we saw at the Guggenheim). He built on his academic training in a similar manner. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he returned to the Engineering College in Dhaka to teach structures and applied mechanics. He found that he could communicate with the students in a way that sparked their interest—he, in turn, was rewarded by the “bright sparks in students’ eyes” when they grasped a new concept. Clearly he understood his subject, and yet he decided to pursue graduate studies. Two scholarships brought him to the United States for three years’ study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Making the most of his time there, he took enough classes to earn two master’s degrees, along with a PhD. Then, when he joined SOM in Chicago, he dedicated himself to an “intensive scrutiny,” in the words of another engineer, into structural behavior.

These years of focused study prepared him for a career characterized by innovation. By the time he started to design tall buildings in the early 1960s, he had a firm understanding of material and structural behavior, which enabled him to think creatively, venturing beyond the conventional methods of analysis and design, as well as an intuitive understanding of structural behavior and load flow. My father described it this way: “I had a visual feeling of what is going on . . . a kind of empathy to the structure.” In addition, his personal and professional grounding allowed him to be open to the probing of ideas and the give and take of working with others. His ability to participate in design as fully as he did owed much to his eagerness for communication.

My father felt strongly about people working together as a team, toward a common goal. This attitude, it seems to me, partly explains his comfortable way of working with others. Design is a process fostered by “natural communication,” he said. “If you start controlling design by hierarchy, it will never be done right; never natural.” I heard from his associates that he applied this approach to design meetings, preferring collegial dialogue to hierarchically structured exchange.

The year after my father died, the American Institute of Architects selected him for a 1983 Institute Honor. “Rarely has any engineer played as key a role in the shaping of architects’ ideas and the shaping of buildings themselves,” the nomination stated. “Fazlur Khan’s work and research had made him one of the most influential structural engineers of the century,” the AIA Jury on Institute Honors wrote. “Besides his innovations . . . he demonstrated a human awareness and commitment to structural and architectural design collaboration that has particular importance for architects today.”

My father was, undoubtedly, exceptionally gifted as an engineer and dedicated to the advancement of his field. 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.

-Yasmin Khan

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