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Yasmin Byron:
The book only a daughter could write

Fazlur and daugher

Yasmin Sabina (Khan) Byron (M.S.’83 CE) in the 1970s with her father, structural engineer Fazlur Khan, whose life, work and genius are the subject of her recent book, Engineering Architecture: The Vision of Fazlur R. Khan.
PHOTO COURTESY YASMIN SABINA (KHAN) BYRON

It is a story that spans two continents and two generations, the tribute of an American-born daughter to her Bangladeshi father, Fazlur Khan, whose move to Chicago in the 1950s would forever change the field of structural design.

Yasmin Khan Byron (M.S.’83 CE) spent seven years researching and writing the book, Engineering Architecture: The Vision of Fazlur R. Khan, published by W.W. Norton in 2004. It was her first major writing effort in what had been, until 1997, a career in building design in San Francisco and Boston.

“After my father died in 1982, a couple of professors said they would like to write a book about him, but they never did,” Byron says. “Then my mom died in 1995. She had been putting his papers together, and I saw how much material was available.” After a friend suggested that Byron herself write a book, she realized she could provide a unique perspective.

Regarded as one of structural engineering’s great visionaries, Khan is best known for his pioneering high-rise designs for Chicago’s 100-story John Hancock Center and 110-story Sears Tower, two of the world’s tallest buildings. But perhaps his most brilliant work is one of his last, the immense roof of the Hajj Terminal in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Using fabric as a structural material, Khan designed more than two hundred 150-foot-square tents for the airport that shelters the more than one million pilgrims who travel to Mecca each year.

“With the Hajj Terminal, he was able to reflect the desert environment,” Byron says, “and at the same time honor the spirit of the pilgrimage.”

Even more remarkable than his projects, she believes, were her father’s engineering insight and his working style, characterized by originality, optimism and confidence. He had a gift for collaboration, a sensitivity for how occupants used spaces and a knack for designing systematic solutions that could be applied to not just one but many problems. He was drawn to elegant structural systems attractive enough to be displayed in a building’s architecture—like the diagonal exterior struts of the Hancock Center or the dramatic tents and cable supports of the Hajj Terminal—all of which he designed without the help of the powerful computer algorithms available today.
Book cover

The book's cover shows Khan's design for the Hajj Terminal in Saudi Arabia. A recent review in The Journal of Architectural Education says it is an "eloquent" and "much needed" work that reveals Khan to be "a human being of extraordinary spiritual depth. He appears as a model of what many would like to be."
PHOTO COURTESY OF W.W. NORTON

“He became involved in tall buildings because he was in Chicago in the 1960s and he started working at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill,” Byron says, referring to the prestigious architecture and engineering design firm. High-rise development was increasingly attractive, particularly in New York and Chicago, due to the baby boom, the thriving economy and the burgeoning workforce. Predominant construction styles using multiple columns throughout the floor plan were excellent for carrying gravity load, but not strong enough to resist wind at greater heights. Stiffening and reinforcement could take the building higher, but not without adding considerable expense.

Khan approached this challenge with a bold new structure, a tubular form for the building’s entire perimeter. It was a completely new idea that was exceptionally efficient and made the construction of tall buildings economically feasible. He initiated the framed tube in a 43-story Chicago apartment building constructed in 1964, then introduced several variations on the theme including the trussed tube, bundled tube, and tube within a tube, devising a new system for each new building scale. All have become accepted standards for skyscraper design.

Born in 1929 in East Bengal, India (later East Pakistan, now Bangladesh), Khan received his B.S. in civil engineering at the University of Dhaka. Then, on Fulbright and government scholarships, he moved to Illinois for graduate study, unavailable at the time in Pakistan. In only three years at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, he earned two master’s degrees and a Ph.D.

“Although by nature very gentle and philosophical, he was a driven man,” Byron says. “I wanted to incorporate these aspects of his personality into the book because people really loved him.” Her own work experience gave her the other tools she needed to craft a book that could be appreciated by engineers, architects, or anyone interested in building design. The book has earned considerable praise from architecture and engineering reviewers for its blend of technical detail and personal/historical context for Khan’s achievements.

“The book is also a good example for students of how exciting and creative a career in engineering can be,” Byron says. It can be found in the collection at UC Berkeley’s Kresge Engineering Library.


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