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World Trade Center engineer speaks

Bridget Keating | Thursday, September 22, 2005

Students and faculty filled the auditorium of Bond Hall Wednesday for a lecture by Leslie Robertson, the lead structural engineer for the World Trade Center Towers and president and founder of the engineering firm Leslie E. Robertson Associates. The School of Architecture and College of Engineering co-sponsored the event.

Robertson, a current Princeton professor, captivated the audience with information about innovations in structural engineering, his current projects and the future of the industry.

Michael Lykoudis, Dean of the School of Architecture, emphasized the importance of cooperation with the College of Engineering.

“This year’s lecture series, ‘Architecture and its Allied Disciplines,’ brings in experts from all fields, such as painters, medical professionals, as we have today, engineers,” Lykoudis said.

He pointed out that it is vital for “architecture students to recognize the collaborative nature of the profession.”

The recipient of numerous prestigious industry awards, including being named Engineering News Record’s “125 People of the Past 125 Years,” Robertson emphasized the importance of team work among talented individuals to achieve goals.

At age 32 and with his tallest project at 22 stories, Robertson became the lead structural engineer for the World Trade Center, whose towers reached 110 stories each.

He describes them as “strong, robust, redundant and light.” He explained that the towers were designed to resist the accidental impact of a Boeing 707. The impacts of the Boeing 767s, commandeered by the terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, even though larger and flying much faster than 707s, were unable to bring down the towers.

It was the ensuing fire fueled by thousands of gallons of jet fuel that was too much for the fire-resistive systems, he explained.

Construction of the world’s tallest buildings is concentrated in Asia and the Middle East, Robertson said, and his current projects include a partnership with I.M. Pei on the Museum for Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar and the Macao Science Center in Macao, China. He is also working with Kohn Pedersen Fox on the Shanghai World Financial Center.

Robertson describes Pei, one of the most successful architects of the 20th Century, as an “old and dear friend” and shared amusing anecdotes about their friendship.

Responding to an inquiry about the future of materials used, Robertson said that steel and concrete will continue to be used, despite the existence of new materials. He stresses “performance over strength.” He also explained bracing practices that provide for air flow, aerodynamics, damping and are economical.

“There is no limit to how high you can build a building if you are optimizing the shape,” Robertson said.

Sophomore engineering student Katelyn Mulvaney was astounded by the size of the buildings Robertson detailed.

“It is remarkable that structures at heights of over one mile can be built,” Mulvaney said. “Being a student from Chicago who is interested in structural engineering, I have always revered the Sears Tower. I couldn’t believe how small the Sears Tower looked in comparison to what was shown today.”

Discussing the ties between science and engineering, Robertson clearly delineated, saying, “Science is discovery. Engineering is design.”

He describes himself not as someone who just comes up with ideas, but someone who carries them out and is “completely involved developing of projects.” While demonstrating that structural engineering is a “serious business,” Robertson left a light message with the audience, saying individuals are capable of creating massively tall structures, “But if it is not fun to live or work in, it is not worth making.”