Vol. 5 Num 305 Tue. April 05, 2005  

Lest We Forget
F R Khan -- An architect with a difference

A prophet is not honoured in his own country" -- so goes the proverb. It is painfully true in case of Dr. Fazlur Rahman Khan, the legendary Bangladesh-born structural engineer. His achievements are hailed by men of science all over the world, obituary references to him were made even in leading magazines like Time and Newsweek (perhaps the only Bangladeshi non-political personality to be so honoured), he was acclaimed the 'Construction Man of the Year' and accorded Alfred E. Lindau Award (considered to be the most precious award in the world of architecture), he headed the prestigious Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat for years (till the end of his days), and yet very few in our country are aware of his monumental contribution, world-wide fame and recognition. No organisation worth its name in Bangladesh even bother to pay tribute to this great son of the soil even on his birth or death anniversary. It very cruelly reminds us of Allama Iqbal's memorable utterance : Izzat use mili jo watanse nikal gaya,
Woh ful dalimey chara jo chaman se nikal gaya

Fortune smiles on him who leaves the motherland, The flower that leaves the garden glimmers in the garland.

F.R. Khan was an outstanding civil engineer who was hailed all over the globe for innovations in high-rise building construction, especially tubular design. He earned international fame for inventing the "bundled tube" system, a structural network consisting of narrow cylinders clustered together to form a thick tower, which minimised the amount of structural steel needed for high towers and eliminated the need for internal wind bracing (since the perimeter columns carry wind loadings). He was born in Dhaka on April 3, 1929 and obtained his Bachelor of Engineering degree from Shibpur Engineering College, University of Calcutta in 1950 at the top of his class. He worked as assistant engineer for the India Highway Department, and then taught at the University of Dhaka. Qualifying for a Fulbright scholarship in 1952, he enrolled at the University of Illinois in Urbana, where he completed enough credits for two Master of Science degrees, one in applied mechanics and the other in structural engineering. He obtained a doctorate in the latter and accepted an engineering position in Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, a leading and world-renowned architectural firm in Chicago.

He returned briefly to his native country (then East Pakistan) and won an important position as Executive Engineer of the Karachi Development Authority. After serving Karachi Development Authority for more than three years (between 1957 and 1960), he came to the painful realisation that the environment in the then Pakistan was in no way congenial to the blossoming of a budding creative genius like him. Although he loved the motherland with all his heart, he was pained to find that the administrative demands in the Karachi Development Authority kept him from design works. He found no way out but to return to the United States where his talent and creativity would have ample opportunities to blossom in their full majesty and splendour. In 1960, he joined Skidmore, Owings and Merrill once again and remained associated with it till his last breath. He shuffled off the mortal coil while on a job-site visit to Jeddah on March 27, 1982.

It was during the early 1960s that he laid the groundwork for his later successes in the field of high-rise buildings. This was a time when intense urbanisation was bringing in its wake a new wave of high-rise buildings. His 1964 ASCE paper on shear-wall-frame interaction was a milestone in the development of economical high-rise buildings in both concrete and steel. With the methodology developed in this paper, the stiffness of frame buildings could be increased several times, without an increase in cost.

In the same period, Dr. Khan also initiated the tubular design concept, with its first application in the 43-storey reinforced concrete Chestnut-Dewitt apartment building in Chicago in 1963.

The next innovation, pushing still further the economically feasible height of multistorey buildings, was the application of shear-wall-frame inter-action principles to tubular structures, creating the tube-in-concept (a pharase coined by Khan), applied first to the Brunswick Building in Chicago. This concept was soon applied to many other structures, including the 52-storey One Shell Plaza, in Houston, which was the tallest reinforced concrete building in the world at the time of its completion.

Also in the 60s, came Khan's first steel version of the tubular structure : the diagonally braced, 100-storey John Hancock Building in Chicago. It became another milestone, particularly due to the strong expression of its dominant structural feature in the architectural facade of the building.

Then came the Sears Roebuck Tower in Chicago in 1974, using a further innovation -- bundling nine tubes into a single structural system -- with 110 stories and 1450ft. height. It was the world's tallest building in the 1980s. Like the John Hancock, it used about half the steel needed for a conventional tubular design.

More innovations followed under his direction, including composite buildings, combining the advantages of the rigidity of a concrete tubular structure and the speed of erection of steel slab systems and interior columns.

A principal feature of Khan's work was to make highly efficient exterior tubular configurations to carry the lateral loads imposed on multistory buildings, rather than assigning this role to less efficient interior frames which clutter the rentable space, as had been common. The innovations introduced by Khan not only improved the rigidity of tall buildings, resulting in their superior performance, but also resulted in substantial economies over the cost of buildings designed, using traditional schemes.

Dr. Khan's startling innovations did not, however, go unchallenged. Skeptics and high-brows in many a circle criticised his innovative theories and questioned their feasibility. But the economy and effectiveness of his massive structures (among the world's tallest) silenced the critics once and for all. As a result, most of the ultra-high buildings today are built on principles introduced by him.

F.R. Khan became the master builder of tall structure of the 60s and 70s. His buildings provided an economic answer to the needs of the day, utilising not only advanced technology but the art of engineering as well. Dr. Khan indeed was an architect with a difference. He believed that there is beauty and simplicity in the structural form of a building that is natural to it from an engineering point of view. Instead of going for a preconceived architectural expression, he let the natural structural form be the architectural representation of a building. He was encouraged and supported in this bold effort by Bruce Graham, a dominant architectural figure at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Khan and Graham jointly shaped the new skyline of many of the world's larger cities.

Khan's influence on the architecture of high-rise buildings was acknowledged by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill with his admission, in the late 1960s, as a general partner in a firm that had heretofore only architect partners. Fazlur was later instrumental in the elevation of other structural and mechanical engineers to the status of partner.

In the non-high-rise category as well, a number of very remarkable projects were designed by Dr. Khan. Of these mention may be made of the suspension roof of the Baxter Laboratories buildings near Deerfield, Illinois, the Hajj Terminal of the King Abdul Aziz Airport (fabric suspension roof) in Jeddah, which covers an area of 105 acres; the fabric suspension roof of the Humphrey Memorial in Minneapolis; the University in Makkah; the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs; and the engineering designs for the solar telescope at Kitt Peak, Arizona.

The honours received by Fazlur Rahman Khan during his chequered life are too numerous to be mentioned here. In 1972, he was proclaimed "Construction's Man of the Year" by the Engineering News Record for his many accomplishments in the field of ultra high-rise buildings. In 1973, he was the recipient of the Alfred E Lindau Award for his "outstanding contributions in advancing the art of reinforced concrete construction in high buildings". He also received the Wason Medal for Most Meritorious Paper in 1971 for his publication, co-authored with Mark Fintel, on "Shock-absorbing Soft Storey Concept for Multistorey Earthquake Structures." He was honoured with the coveted and prestigious post of the Chairman of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat right from its inception until his death. He was also a member of Committees 118, Use of Computers, and 442, Response of Concrete Buildings to Lateral Forces.

F R Khan had always been both human and humane. Unlike the average run of engineers, he never found himself confined to the dull and stereotyped environment of cut and dried formulae and techniques. He began his professional career as a structural engineer and gradually developed into an engineer architect with a keen perception of aesthetics. Furthermore, his appreciation of the mechanical and electrical aspects of building design gave him an overview of the entire construction process. Even beyond his intimate understanding of the non-structural disciplines and aesthetics and his exceptional intuitive understanding of structural behaviour. Khan had a remarkable perception of the social needs of the millions who live and work in the cities. Engineering and architecture were the media through which he sought to fulfil the needs. In a way, he was a philosopher who defined the role of the architect engineer in society. In the ultimate analysis, it was the urge to respond to human needs and aspirations that enabled Dr. Khan to make the outstanding structures and innovations that brought him recognition and honour by society and profession.

F R Khan was also an exceptional communicator very much at ease with all groups as well as large audiences. He had the remarkable ability to articulate complex concepts in simple, understandable language. In spite of the intense demand of his busy professional life, he found time to regularly teach courses at the Illinois Institute of Technology and supervise graduate students. With his untiring activities, remarkable achievements and pleasant but commanding personality he inspired countless young engineers and set a standard for them to measure up against.

In 1971, when the merciless military junta launched the most heinous atrocity on the innocent unarmed civilian population in Bangladesh, Dr. Khan, in spite of his heavy commitments and preoccupations, found enough time to organise the Bangalees and their friends in the United States into a Defence League which raised enormous funds for relief works. He also organised a strong lobby in Washington for months to urge the US authority to stop shipment of arms to the junta. No wonder, he was the founder-president of both the Bangladesh Foundation, which helped the grassroots non-government development projects, and the Bangladesh Association in the United States.

The enormous professional success did never affect the behaviour or the way of life of this great man. He remained humble, always accessible to his associates and friends, and continued his modest way of life. Never did he change his philosophy that people are the focal point of life. "In social contacts," says his friend Mark-Fintel of Portland Cement Association, "he was interesting, entertaining, and deeply and sincerely concerned with his friends, their families, their lives, joys, and sorrows. To him, friendship meant giving of himself, and that is why he had so many friends, and no enemies." This philosophy always remained the strongest motivation behind his actions, whether in professional or in personal life.

Syed Asraf Ali is former D G of Islamic Foundation Bangladesh.

Sears Tower, Chicago; inset:F R Khan