The buildings and designs of FR Khan are renowned and celebrated the world over. Kazi Khaleed Ashraf gives one of the 20th century's premier structural engineers his due.



The art of standing tall

If the space shuttle poised for a glorious lift-off at Cape Canaveral is a quintessential American image, the skyscraper is another. The devastating attack on the Twin Towers was systematically intended for that symbolic target as well as for the catastrophic result. Although the tall building as a type is quite widespread now (there are more such buildings in Shanghai per square kilometer these days than, say, Chicago), it still represents the daring-do of America through a combination of its corporate and construction culture. It brings together the technological boldness, the classic image of the American downtown, and the might and mettle of corporate America.

It makes an inspiring story that a Bangladeshi, hailing from Madaripur and trained in Dhaka and Kolkata, brought a radical change in the language and spirit of this quintessential American emblem. Fazlur Rahman Khan, or F.R. Khan as he was also called, was a visionary and one of the foremost structural engineers of the 20th century, or as someone described, the "Einstein of structural engineering" who revolutionized the design of tall buildings.

It is more than a coincidence that F.R. Khan made Chicago his home. From one building to another, and from one architect to another, Chicago envisioned the scope of the modern environment like no other city in the world. The city harboured such visionaries as Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe, to which F. R. Kahn was another luminous addition. Chicago is also the city that literally invented the modern skyscraper building, and led its development from the masonry structure of the Monadnock Building (1891) to the steel and glass Sears Tower (1974). The architectural office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, or SOM, has been most responsible in giving the more recent expression and technological inventiveness to the tall building. SOM is one of the largest architectural companies in the United States, and from its base in Chicago, has been responsible for affecting the urban environment of many cities world-wide. F. R. Khan made his contributions working from SOM.

Fazlur Rahman Khan was born in Dhaka in 1929, went to Shibpur Engineering College for his education, and later joined the then Ahsanullah Engineering College as a teacher. He left for higher studies in the United States in 1952, and joined SOM in 1955 where he was a managing partner at the time of his untimely death in 1982. He also taught at the famed Illinois Institute of Technology (whose architecture school was directed by Mies van der Rohe).

Mir M. Ali, in his fascinating book Art of the Skyscraper: The Genius of Fazlur Khan (published by Rizzoli, New York, 2001), correctly places F.R. Khan among the leaders of structural visionaries like Pier Luigi Nervi, Robert Maillart and Felix Candela, and more recently, Santiago Calatrava, who have combined structure, tectonics and architecture as a synthetic, poetic expression. Through the art of collaboration, F. R. Khan was able to bring back the art and unity to the old but now estranged partnership between architecture and engineering. In the structural art of F.R. Khan, it was difficult to disentangle one from the other. His earnestness for exploration and invention in this shared realm, yet within a pragmatic and scientific rigor, was a product of his fruitful relationship with two architectural stalwarts, Myron Goldsmith and Bruce Graham. F.R. Khan was more than a brilliant technologist; his genius lay in pushing he realm of his own discipline. Mir M. Ali writes that F.R. Khan's legacy will be kept alive for particularly his concern for humanity, by including the human criteria in the design beyond the cold logic of structural mechanics. Bruce Graham, who was especially befriended to F.R. Khan and was the architectural partner of many a project at SOM, once spoke of their relationship that "grew not only because of sympathetic aesthetic preoccupations or the mutual respect with which we regarded each other, but also out of an indistinct vision of the city, of the city beautiful, the purpose of cities and of the pride of human existence." The City Council of Chicago, in a resolution much after F.R. Khan's death, had recognized his numerous contributions to man's built environment and his "leadership and humanistic concerns for a better world."

However, it was to the tall building that F.R. Khan gave his abiding focus. His developments, one after another, became the conventional system for designing the modern skyscraper, such as the framed tube, the shear wall frame interaction, the trussed tube, and the bundled tube. Even if technical virtuosity is a key element, the tall building in the end is more than structural product; there are nagging issues of scale, behemoth energy and language. The tall building brings up simultaneously questions of structural, technological, architectural, urban and social nature. Questions like "How will it stand up? How will withstand wind load?" and "How economic will be the construction?" must be placed at the same time with "How will it appear in the skyline? How will be the street life at the foot of the tower?" and "What will the building communicate?"

The idea of the tubular design was hailed as the most innovative system in F.R. Khan's development that removed the tall building from the constraints of the conventional rigid frame. That system in its various form has now become common for most tall buildings (the World Trade Center buildings were constructed in a similar system). The two key buildings where F.R. Khan demonstrated the features of the various tubular system were the 100-storey John Hancock Centre (1968) and the 110-storey Sears Tower (1974), both in Chicago. A critic writes in a book that "in the same way as prehistoric animals disappeared when their size became too difficult to carry, the second school of Chicago reached its critical point in two buildings designed by SOM," referring to the two Chicago landmarks. The John Hancock Centre was the first steel version of F.R. Khan's tubular concept; it was actually a trussed-tube structural system with external diagonal bracing.

Sears Tower, the tallest building in the world for over twenty years, and when built, the largest building in the world after the Pentagon, exhibited the groundbreaking structural system of the bundled tube. The bundled tube system consisted of "a structural network of narrow cylinders clustered together to form a thick tower, which minimised the amount of structural steel needed for high towers and eliminated the need for internal wind bracing (since the perimeter columns carry wind loadings)." It also minimized the need of interior frames that affected the efficiency of commercial spaces.

F.R. Khan may be remembered mostly for his contribution towards the radical development of the tall vertical structure, he was also innovative in some horizontal projects that were a challenge in both functional and constructional terms. One such project was the Haj Terminal in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Designed to shelter 80,000 pilgrims at one time, F.R. Khan created a unique fabric structure covering about 105 acres that both hinted at the traditional Bedouin tents and also incorporated the high-tech structure and materials of stretched fabric.

With F.R. Khan's deep and abiding involvement with such an intrinsic and involving American theme -- the tall building and what it stands for -- his direct contributions for Bangladesh were often limited. He was involved with BUET in some capacity, and for some time, towards the end of his life and what we know, attempted to involve the planning machinery of SOM towards the development of Dhaka. Unfortunately, and predictably, there was no proper response from Dhaka itself. However, F.R. Kahn's greatest contribution was during 1971 when he mobilized public opinion and funds in the United States toward the Liberation War efforts.

The fame and respect F.R. Khan garnered in the United States and elsewhere are not very much known to many in Bangladesh. Accolades and recognitions came in his lifetime but some of the remarkable ones came after his death, as described fondly by his associate Mir M. Ali in his book mentioned earlier. In Chicago, the city of tall buildings, where the man from Madaripur made his home, a major street is named after him now known as "Fazlur R. Khan Way." A statue of F.R. Khan was commissioned by the Structural Engineers Association of Illinois that was created by a well-known Spanish sculptor, Carlos Marinas, and which was finally located inside Sears Tower. On the day of the initial unveiling of the sculpture (May 20, 1988), the mayor of Chicago dedicated the day as "Dr. Fazlur Rahman Khan Day in Chicago." On the occasion of the street naming ceremony in 1998, President Clinton commented, "Architecture can define as well as reflect the spirit of a people, giving tangible form to the beauty of human expression and the power of human imagination. Drawing on the richness of his Bengali background and the vigour and energy of American culture, Fazlur Khan pushed the boundaries of modern architecture and dramatically changed the physical landscape of the great city of Chicago."

The scope and nature of tall buildings have not remained static. Following the devastating attack on the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001, the scope of the tall building is in question again. For a while, American builders and developers pondered on the future of the building type. Is it worth it to construct such tall buildings? Can they ever be designed to thwart catastrophic failure as had happened with the Twin Towers? Can they be designed to withstand the impact of a massive airliner? It's for certain that if F.R. Khan were alive today, he would have taken the leadership in reconceptualizing the tall building again.

Mir M. Ali's book “Art of the Skyscraper: The Genius of Fazlur Khan” was consulted for some of the information used in this article.

Creating a modern architecture for Bangladesh

Muzharul Islam, in a single figure, summarizes the modern architectural history of Bangladesh, from its tentative beginning in the 1950s to its proliferation now. While it might appear too much to place the reins of the whole architectural culture on a single person, Muzharul Islam and his work remain the barometer of the contemporary architectural dynamic as it negotiates between modernization, westernization, tradition, and nation-building.

For over five decades, Muzharul Islam has been active in defining the scope and form of an architectural culture in Bangladesh. His practice has been discontinuous at times, with periods of greater and lesser intensity of production, but it has always been multi-sided. Beginning in the early 1950s as the only formally trained architect working in Dhaka, when he was barely thirty years old, Muzharul Islam started with the enormous task of creating a modern yet Bengali paradigm for architecture where none existed. Modernism was the key to Muzharul Islam's architectural thinking. To him, modernism was more than an architectural language; it was an ethical and rational approach for addressing what he perceived as social inequities and depravation in the country. His steadfast commitment to the modernist ideology stems from an optimistic vision for transforming society. Consequently, his commitment for establishing a strong design culture in Bangladesh is paralleled by an equally deep engagement with the political and ethical dimension of society. All this is not always an easy task in a place where architecture has been pursued more as a commercial or practical enterprise than an instrument of social change.

Born in 1923, Muzharul Islam was trained as an engineer at Calcutta University, after which he went to Oregon University in the United States to receive an architectural degree in 1952. He would return to the USA later in 1961 for a master's degree at Yale under the indomitable Paul Rudolph, then the unchallenged star of American architecture.

Muzharul Islam's contribution to creating a vibrant architectural culture depended on establishing the architectural profession of a new nation in the face of strong opposition from bureaucratic and engineering circles, and even the academic one tainted by sterility. He attempted to introduce an international dialogue in Bangladesh by orchestrating the invitation of such world-renowned architects as Louis Kahn, Paul Rudolph, and Stanley Tigerman to work here. The intention was to produce shining and inspiring examples of modern architecture.

As teacher, mentor, and organizer, Muzharul Islam influenced the development of many a vigorous architectural activities. His office "Vastukalabid" was more than once the springboard for passionate movements by committed young architects; the most notable was the founding of Chetana Architectural Research Group in 1983 that had since then carried out ground-breaking research in the architectural history of the region. He incorporated an honourable professional practice in Bangladesh (and Pakistan before 1971); as president of the architects' institute he was responsible for initiating a number of measures for the legal recognition of the new profession. While the groundwork of a modern architectural profession and discipline has been laid by Muzharul Islam, and almost single-handedly, his efforts have hardly been recognized and honoured outside the professional circle.

Muzharul Islam's architectural intentions have always been larger than the problem at hand. More than being merely a practicing architect, he has epitomized a larger cultural paradigm, one that confronted the old duality of tradition and modernity. His oft-repeated reflection: "How do we enter the twenty-first century?" reveals an unabashed and idealistic stance towards modernity. Modernity may at first appear as antithetical to the static idea of tradition and home, but in the turmoil of sub-continental as well as Bengali culture, where one seems alienated from whatever "home" stands for, I see Muzharul Islam's modernity as opening up of the possibility of a "return home.”

For Muzharul Islam, the idea of "return" emerges from the colonial experience, through interpreting colonialism as a "rupture," as a fatal and irreversible condition created by its disruptive mechanisms.

In Bengal, as in the rest of India, the "rupture" was experienced as conflicts between a pre-colonial culture and colonial conditions. In the context of Bangladesh, especially after 1947, the aggressive Islamic ideology of Pakistan introduced a second and a more deadly wedge. Religion was used, often deviously, to undermine Bengali cultural consciousness. The events of the 1971 War of Independence marked a violent form of Pakistani intervention and a critical moment of Bengali resistance to it. Bengali culture faced a trichotomy with European traditions and Pakistani-Islamic ideology: While British colonialism deeply affected the intellectual and economic base, Pakistani domination created an antagonism between native spirituality and an ideological version of Islam. It is in the context of these various disruptions -- from political to psychological and spiritual -- that Muzharul Islam speaks of "mone-prane-karmokande khati bangali houa," that is, to be a "true" Bengali in mind, spirit, and practice. The metaphor of "return" assumes that one is displaced from where one was once mone-prane-karmokande bangali, and the return there is prior to any ethical and creative behaviour.

Modernity, for Muzharul Islam, is as much a returning as going away. It is a going away from the immediate colonial past, and a returning to an "essentialist" and perhaps utopian condition free from exclusionary religious ideologies, traumatic inheritances, propagandist symbolisms and pretentious iconographies. As much avowed to a Bengali political identity, he would not immediately translate this visually by adopting tell-tale motifs of tradition.

It is apparent though that one can no longer return to where once was. Overt traditionalism, in most cases, is a sentimental return hiding behind it either a consumerist motive or a lack of critical and intellectual rigour. Or worse, traditionalism could, and does, slip towards national chauvinism. As there is no longer the return, one can now only return to a transformed or constructed condition. But what distinguishes this from the facile method of instant traditionalism? What might give it a greater degree of authenticity?

Muzharul Islam's position in this case is dialogical. Although it is hinged to a specific place, it does not falter in engaging in a "world dialogue," that is, in recognizing what J.L. Mehta described, "the mode of existence of present-day man, who has his sojourn in a region where civilizations, cultures and religions touch each other, where times and places flow together" since "no nation today is an island;" it is also not daunted that this might necessitate a different, or a new way of making. Muzharul Islam wants to operate within the nexus of a cultural particularness and the humanist idea of "the-world-as-my-village." This twin obligation has directed his work ever since.

During the time when Muzharul Islam was establishing his practice in the 1950s and 60s, Pakistan was in turmoil. The dominant political consciousness in then East Pakistan, roused by the issue of disparities between the two provinces of Pakistan, and the manipulative use of religion by the central government, polarized most Bengali intellectuals towards secular, socialist thinking. Muzharul Islam was one of them. His continuous commitment to a rationalist and materialist philosophy has led to his vehement antipathy to the manipulation of architecture and culture within highly politicized religious situations. In this context, his work, remaining distanced from both exclusivist symbolization and what he sees as architectural fashion, has acquired a kind of ascetic minimalism. And it is that intellectual content in his work that has led to some misunderstanding of it as uncompromising and stark.

Muzahrul Islam's architectural repertoire is broad; he has designed and built universities (master plan for Chittagong and Jahangirnagar Universities, and design of selected buildings), large-scale housing, government buildings and institutions and numerous residences (rumoured to be in the hundreds). His architectural work, from his earlier approach that expressed the pavilion paradigm -- the open, porous building -- of the hot-humid delta, as in the Art College and NIPA building at Dhaka University, represents an original contribution in creating a tropical and deltaic response for international modernism. Art College, built fifty years ago from today, still conveys the brilliant and wonderful response in creating a permeable building that fully mediates with nature. His later works, from the 1970s onwards, reflect a heavier, more earth-hugging language, best expressed in the massive brickwork of the National Library, Dhaka (1980). Even if all his buildings are derived from a modern tectonic and construction methods with a geometric rigour, they are products of environmental responses. The buildings are intended to be receptacles of "light, green, and air" in the hot-humid delta.

In the Polytechnique Institutes for five sites (1966-78), designed with the radical American architect Stanley Tigerman, the project became an occasion to produce rational and methodological principles of design for Bangladesh where none really existed in the contemporary sense. The initial study by these two architects resulted in an extraordinary meticulous research on form determinates in relation to tectonics, climate, materials and traditional building techniques relevant to the region. The result was then published in a major international journal as a manual of building in the tropical environment.

In Muzharul Islam's large-scale projects, especially Jahangingar University (1967-70) and Joypurhat Housing (1978), the order of the plan is determined by a geometric web of tilted squares, triangles and diagonals. The projects are situated in non-urban areas where the natural landscape is transformed into a scene of deep-green foliage and clustered masses of red brick connected by ordered spaces. These projects address alternative ideas of urbanity by moving away from the conventional morphology of either city or country. One would never know how the exquisite master plan would have worked at Jahangirnagar to create a modern campus offering new ideas of social collectivity, for know-alls in charge of the university deformed it to the mediocre state it is now.

Planning is required where resources are limited; the more limited resources are, the more creative one needs to be. Beyond the single act of building, Muzharul Islam has always urged for a proper regional planning and large-scale designing of physical space for a country like Bangladesh. With his increasing political engagement he has argued for a broadening of the role of architects in South Asia in order to confront and transform existing social conditions, including the vast rural areas that mostly lie outside the pale of formal architectural activities.

Kazi Khaleed Ashraf, an architect and architecture writer, is a professor at the University of Hawaii.

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