Gawk at the John Hancock Center today. Marvel anew at the Sears Tower.
Then give a quiet thanks to Fazlur Rahman Khan.
Khan, the erudite, Bangladesh-born Skidmore Owings & Merrill structural engineer, figured out a way to hold up these big buildings and make them beautiful. He created the iconic X-bracing that races up the John Hancock Center’s sides. Khan was the structural genius behind Sears Tower; he shaped the building as much as architect Bruce Graham did. The techniques Khan perfected with these buildings and others around the city are replicated around the world. But the average person standing outside the Sears Tower probably never has seenKhan’s name. Until now. The city will unveil an honorary street sign at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the northwest corner of Jackson and Franklin – right outside the Sears Tower – renaming the portion of the intersection “Fazlur R. Khan Way.” Khan died of a heart attack while traveling through Saudi Arabia in 1982. He was 52.
The honorary name change is largely due to Sadruddin Noorani, a local businessman who originally sought to get Franklin between Jackson and Randolph named for Khan. “Muslims are always looked upon as terrorists or something bad,” said Noorani, who did not know Khan. “So I always look for the good things – the positive. We have this innovator. And he was Muslim.” A joke – based in a truth – in engineering circles: Whistler painted a famous picture of his mother, but he skipped committing his old man to canvas. Whistler’s father was an engineer. Engineers figure out how to take the weight of a building and efficiently transfer it down to the structure’s foundation. The job has to be done in a way that makes the building flexible, usable and attractive. It’s an amazing, complicated task. Still, engineers often are unfairly consigned to slide-rule nerd anonymity. “Who was the architect?” we ask, but seldom add, “Who was the structural engineer?” Khan – “Faz” to those who knew him – came the closest to breaking the partition. He was stylish, witty, urbane; a world traveler. His office had supercool Marcel Breuer cantilevered chairs.
He lived in Hyde Park and, later, Lincoln Park with his Austrian-born wife, Lisalotte Khan, and their daughter Yasmin. “He was interested in people,” said Yasmin Byron, Khan’s daughter, a California structural engineer. “He was concerned with people and how engineering affected people. He would travel to different countries, and it was important to him to find out what the culture was like and how he could relate the engineering to the culture, rather than taking a Western idea and transferring it.” “He was a very broad person,” said Skidmore Owings & Merrill’s John Zils, the project engineer on the Sears Tower. “In the end, it is what gave him his ability to take engineering and apply it in a more humanistic way than a lot of us are capable of.” Khan was born in East Pakistan – now Bangladesh. He came to the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship after receiving a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at the University of Dhaka in 1950.
The Fulbright brought Khan to the University of Illinois. There, he received two master’s degrees and a doctorate in engineering. Khan’s first – and only – job after college was at Skidmore Owings & Merrill. He ended up becoming a general partner. With SOM architect Myron Goldsmith, Khan experimented with Hancock-style exterior bracings in the early 1960s – a few years before Big John was built. Khan’s Hancock X-bracing runs right inside some of the building’s residential units. Some Hancock planners originally balked at the idea. Not now, though. “It’s almost like a status symbol, now, to have a `diagonal’ in your apartment,” Zils said. “It symbolizes that you live in the Hancock.” “It is probably the most efficient system that he used,” said Byron, who is writing a book on her father’s life. “But he realized you could only have one of those in a city.” Sears, Roebuck and Co. was a giant company looking for a lot of space.
They wanted a complex that could house their massive retail operation, yet have prime rental space above with lots of good views. They didn’t seek out wanting to build the world’s tallest building. But that’s what happened. “The problem was how to design a building with a big base that got smaller at the top,” Zils said. “One of the solutions was to take a tubal structure and bundle the smaller tubes together (at the bottom) and drop them off as you came up. Bruce Graham and Faz eventually worked it out.” Sears Tower is not a skyscraping monolith, but a grand assemblage of many parts. Each part plays its role, then bows out as the building goes upward. At top is one triumphant section topped with twin television antennas. The triumph will be relived this afternoon as Khan’s friends and devotees gather on the 100th floor of the Sears Tower to honor his work.