The technical man

June 30, 2011

The second text is a quotation from my father. He was being interviewed by Engineering News-Record in 1971 for an article about his selection as ENR’s Man of the Year. While discussing his many influential innovations for high-rise design, he reminded the journalist that structures should help make people’s lives better, that technological advancement is not a goal in itself. He always kept this in mind, believing, for instance, that a tall building with a plaza can be preferable to a short, bulky building. What he said at the time of the interview, and what is written on the memorial plaque, is: “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.”

Onterie Center had two entrances, one for the residences and one for the retail/office space, connected by a lobby, or galleria. Chandra Jha had already planned to involve an artist from Barcelona, Juan Gardy-Artigas, in the galleria design to create a stunning mosaic tile floor. During construction Chandra added a mosaic memorial plaque for my father, also designed by Juan Gardy-Artigas.

Memorial plaque for Fazlur R. Khan

The mosaic is quite large, and includes two sections with text. One says:

In Memoriam

Dr. Fazlur Rahman Khan (4-3-29 – 3-27-82)

World-renowned structural engineer, whose lasting contributions to architecture illuminated all our paths. We dedicate this plaque with gratitude to Dr. Khan for his leadership in engineering practice which culminated in this structure, Onterie Center

–his final work.

The document printed for the dedication includes the ending:


James R. Thompson,  Governor, State of Illinois

Michael T. Woelffer, Director, Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs

Chandra K. Jha, for PSM International Corporation

Bruce J. Graham, for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill

Onterie Center

June 29, 2011

In the early 1950s it was still unusual to see someone from the Indian subcontinent walking on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. So when my father and Chandra K. Jha saw each other, they stopped to say hello. My father had spent three years at the University of Illinois in Urbana, and his visa allowed him to remain in the United States for another two years for professional training (that is, he could get a job as a structural engineer). Chandra Jha was also a structural engineer, but his interest was in construction management. The two young men liked each other immediately, and soon became friends.

They remained close friends and when Chandra left construction and became a developer around 1980, he asked SOM, where my father was by now a general partner and chief structural engineer, to design his building. Onterie Center, the name selected for the 60-story tower, was significant for my father for another reason: it was his first design for a concrete trussed tube. It is a strikingly elegant concrete structure, and, as it turned out, his last design. He never saw the building completed.

Onterie Center in Chicago

Graceland in Chicago

March 29, 2011

Graceland is the cemetery Erik Larson mentions in The Devil in the White City. Graceland is home to many architects and engineers – including Louis Sullivan, William Le Baron Jenney, Daniel Burnham, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – along with other prominent figures in Chicago history. Located in the city, just north of Wrigley Field, it is a surprisingly peaceful resting place. My parents’ site (partly shaded by the branches of a tree, near flowering landscaped areas, and within sight of the pond) is particularly lovely.

When my father died in 1982, Bruce Graham wrote a eulogy for him. My father and Bruce had worked together for over twenty years. I believe they both felt that their collaboration and respect for each other inspired their creativity over the years. It was Bruce Graham’s enthusiasm for rational structures, my father once said, that strengthened his motivation to search for structural solutions worthy of expression.

I was reminded of the importance of this personal connection between engineer and architect last October when I attended a memorial service for Bruce Graham. Printed on the program for the service was not a eulogy for Bruce but rather the eulogy Bruce wrote for my father. His words eloquently conveyed the heartfelt respect he felt for my father, as an engineer and as a person, and it was deeply moving for me to read them once again. I also greatly appreciated Bruce’s family, together with his former partners at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, choosing to feature his words about my father at a memorial service dedicated to Bruce.

And that was not all. With the help of SOM, Bruce Graham’s family obtained the plot next to that of my parents at Graceland Cemetery and placed a memorial stone for him there. As part of this work, the planting border around my parents’ stone was adjusted so that the two sites – Bruce’s and my parents’ – relate to each other. I am very happy about this new arrangement; and it means a lot to me to know that, 29 years after my father’s passing, his memory endures in this way. Still today, many people express to me their love and admiration for him – and I am sincerely grateful for this.

It is a gift my father left me.

My parents’ gravestone (left) and Bruce Graham’s memorial stone at Graceland Cemetery, October 2010.

This last fall I was very happy to learn about a new course on building design at Princeton University. It is a structures class that looks at design in a social and historical context. Professors Maria Garlock and Sigrid Adriaenssens invited me to meet with their students to talk about my father and his work. When I visited in September we sat around a table–this photo was taken then–and two students, Liz and Megan, presented a list of questions the class had prepared in advance. A couple of weeks after my visit, Bill Baker, SOM’s structural engineering partner, visited the class to talk about current practice. Leslie Robertson did, too, later on, as well as Guy Nordenson. And Professor David Billington talked with the students about structural art.

September 2010 visit to Princeton









As part of the course work, the class broke into small groups of two or three students each to study one of my father’s high-rise designs in more detail. Each group built a model of its selected building. These five models will soon be featured in an exhibition at the Engineering Library.

I was truly impressed when I received these photos of the models from Professor Garlock. I hope to visit Princeton this year to see the exhibition.

Princeton class

The five buildings modeled are the John Hancock Center in Chicago; the Sears Tower (now called the Willis Tower) in Chicago; the Brunswick Building in Chicago; One Shell Plaza in Houston; and Marine Midland Bank in Rochester.

Fazlur R. Khan Way

March 9, 2011

Displayed above the “Khan Sculpture” is the street sign that can be seen just outside the building, at the intersection of Jackson and Franklin Streets. The city named this intersection at the foot of the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) in honor of my father in 1998.

Khan Sculpture and Fazlur R. Khan Way sign

Our friends Vasyl and Luba at the Sears Tower last October

If you have visited the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) you have probably seen a sculpture that was commissioned by the Structural Engineers Association of Illinois to honor my father. Designed by the Spanish artist Carlos Marinas, it is a large bas-relief made of stainless steel and bronze that represents the Chicago skyline and features a bust of my father. The sculpture was completed in 1988 and today has the special distinction of being seen by the many visitors to the skydeck.

SEAOI sculpture honoring Fazlur R. Khan

This sculpture at the Sears Tower (now Willis Tower) is located near to the elevators at the skydeck ticket area.

Recent FRK article

February 23, 2011

Mr. Weingardt’s article is nicely written and full of detail, and I can see that he carefully read my website as well as my book about my father. Still, a few minor personal errors slipped in–I’ll mention them here to clear up any confusion. First, it is confusing to refer to my father as a Pakistan native. He was born in Bengal in 1929, which was part of British India at the time. In 1947 Bengal was split when India and Pakistan were established as separate countries, with East Bengal becoming East Pakistan. Then in 1971 East Pakistan fought for independence and became Bangladesh.

So, my father would consider himself a Bangladeshi-American, but he also liked to say he was a citizen of the world. After all, the place where he was born had changed from being part of British India, to part of Pakistan, to Bangladesh; and as an adult living in the U.S. he had become an American citizen. Yet he had not changed, he had not become a different person each time.

Two other small points: my father died exactly one week short of his fifty-third birthday; and it was the music of Beethoven that he loved.

New article about FRK

February 21, 2011

This month’s issue of Structure magazine includes a great article about my father by Richard Weingardt. This March it will be 29 years since his death.