How Fazlur Rahman Khan Engineered the Modern Skyscraper

The prolific Bangladeshi American structural engineer set the new standard for tall buildings all over the world, from Chicago’s Hancock Center to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.

Sneha Mehta

January 26, 2022

How Fazlur Rahman Khan Engineered the Modern Skyscraper
Fazlur Rahman Khan (SOM)

In the construction of gravity-defying tall buildings, efficiency matters. The Empire State Building, built in 1931, was 102 stories tall — the tallest building in the world at the time — but dense. Architects had used 210 concrete and steel beams, which had also made the building prohibitively expensive. It wasn’t until 1970, nearly 40 years later, that someone would engineer the second building in the world to reach 100 stories that was light, strong, and elegant: the John Hancock Center in Chicago. The building’s innovative steel tubular frame paved the way for the modern, mixed-use, and very tall skyscrapers we know today. The man behind it? Fazlur Rahman Khan, a Bangladeshi American structural engineer who changed architecture and design across the world, forever. 

Khan was born in a village near Dhaka, in present-day Bangladesh, but which was then part of undivided Bengal, India in 1929. He was born to a mathematics teacher and went to nearby colleges in Dhaka and Calcutta, before earning a Fulbright to study in the U.S., where he earned two masters, in structural engineering as well as theoretical and applied mathematics. Close friends described him as a “man who had no enemies,” and his wife lovingly shared that his warm temperament was something that he had to work on. As a child, Khan “often displayed his temper and stubbornness. In fact, whenever Fazlur went to spend vacation with some of his relatives, his father would always send along a letter with exact instructions on how to deal with him.”

On the other hand, for Khan, aesthetic design and structural engineering were as easy as breathing. “He became the building,” one of his friends wrote in memoriam. “I put myself in the place of a whole building, feeling every part,” Khan once said. “I visualize the stresses and twisting a building undergoes.” For Khan, design and engineering were intrinsically human- and culture-focused. He identified as Bengali, Bangladeshi, of the Indian subcontinent, Muslim, American, a dad, a husband, a son, a friend, a teacher. Some argue it was these very multitudes that allowed Khan to ultimately make his mark — to see what others couldn’t see — on design and architecture that persists to this day, far after his untimely death at age 52 in 1982.