Moment #3: Passing of Fazlur Khan, CTBUH Chairman 1979-1982

Fazlur Khan and the John Hancock Center.

It is difficult to overstate the impact that CTBUH Chairman Fazlur R. Khan, partner, Skidmore Owings & Merrill, had on the tall building industry. Just a few of the titles bestowed upon him include “father of tubular design,”1 “Einstein of structural engineering,”2 and “greatest structural engineer of the 20th century”3. His pioneering design work paved the way for a new generation of skyscrapers that would assign a major portion of their vertical supporting strength to the external envelope. The tubular approach, including the framed, trussed, and bundled tube; as well as the outrigger-and-belt-truss system, delivered tall buildings that were lighter and less material-intensive than those of previous generations.

In addition to gaining height more economically, this meant that tall buildings could be something other than box-like; they could become sculptural and expressive. The implications of this could easily be observed in the brawny but beautiful appearance of the John Hancock Center (now 875 North Michigan) (1969) and the Sears (now Willis) Tower (1974), both in Chicago. The impact of his work extends to the present day; virtually all buildings constructed since the 1960s extending beyond 40 floors have used a variant of the tube structures Khan pioneered.

As Chairman, Khan sat on the Editorial Committee and presided over the creation of CTBUH’s first set of technical monographs, beginning in 1978; a further six volumes were published up to 1986. Khan passed in 1982.

The CTBUH created the Fazlur R. Khan Lifetime Achievement Award in Khan’s memory in 2004.

Reflecting on his interactions with Fazlur Khan during his career, Adrian Smith (Partner, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture) recounted, “I was fortunate to design two buildings with him – First Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee (with Jim Destefano and Bruce Graham), which incorporated the first expressed truss system; and Olympia Center, a 60-story exterior tube system that ‘opened like a basket at the top and corners,’ to use his words. He was also a great Partner and a very decent human being. There was a beautiful remembrance held in his honor at the Chicago Auditorium Theatre where Nat Owings spoke of his buildings as not just rising, but soaring like the wings of an Eagle!”

1 Weingardt, Richard (2005). Engineering Legends. ASCE Publications. p. 75.
2 Ali, Mir (2001). Art of the Skyscraper: The Genius of Fazlur Khan. Rizzoli International Publications.
3 Weingardt, Richard (2011). “Fazlur Rahman Khan: The Einstein of Structural Engineering”. Structure Magazine. National Council of Structural Engineers Associations, Feb. 2011: 44.