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World Trade Center engineer discusses work

Julie Bender | Thursday, February 24, 2005

Amidst a candlelit dinner in the stadium press box Wednesday night, renowned structural engineer Leslie Robertson treated a select group of engineering students and professors to a lecture entitled, “The Merging of Structural Engineering and Architecture: A Short History of the Designs of Les Robertson.”

Robertson, whose structural designs include the World Trade Center in New York City, the United States Steel Headquarters in Pittsburgh and the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, began the evening on a note of humility, refusing to take personal credit for any of the structures he designed.

“These structures aren’t the work of Mr. Robertson but of a group of people. People make great projects, not persons,” he said as images of some of the world’s most notable buildings flashed on the screen behind him.

Robertson doesn’t even take credit for his own humility, saying that it’s what he has learned from his work abroad in other cultures, especially in Asian countries where his work is highly revered.

“If there’s anything I’ve learned from working in the Far East, it’s that you must be humble,” he said. ” … you learn about a culture through reading and through listening and experiencing what is around you, not by expecting people to listen to you.”

Highlighting many of the structures he has designed for construction, Robertson spoke in detail about the design process and the complications engineers must deal with. Robertson said the goal of his company – Leslie E. Robertson Associates, R.L.L.P. – is simple structures with robustness.

“We build redundancy into our buildings, allowing them to remain standing if something should go wrong,” he said. “We design so that if you take a tress out of any of our buildings, the building will continue to stand.”

Though the World Trade Center was not the focus of this lecture, Robertson touched on the subject towards the end of the evening when questioned on the modern obstacles of structural engineering. Robertson said the Trade Center had actually been designed to withstand impact with low flying aircraft but, due to the speed and size of the planes on Sept. 11, the towers could not remain standing.

Robertson stressed, however, that engineers should not change their designs to be able to withstand the impact of high-speed planes. Robertson recalled that in the weeks following Sept. 11, engineers were questioning him about how to re-design their work in case of a terrorist attack.

“To me this is a non-issue,” he said. “We should be spending our money on trying to make peace with the Middle East, not spending it on tactics for homeland security.”

Robertson, who has received several honorary degrees for his work – including one from Notre Dame in 2003 – closed his talk by stressing the educational development of young people just starting out. Showing the designs of both undergraduate and graduate students, Robertson gave words of encouragement to the young engineers in the room.

“Everything you see and touch is engineered,” he said. “To be a good engineer it is important that you be yourself, be frank with the people you collaborate with and know the fundamentals of engineering.”