How Fazlur Rahman Khan Engineered the Modern Skyscraper

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

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Fazlur Rahman Khan on the cover of Engineering News-Record

Sneha Mehta

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January 26, 2022

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15 min

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 man behind it? Fazlur Rahman Khan. 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.

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