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Leslie E. Robertson, structural engineer of the World Trade Center, passes away at 92

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 07, 2021 9:08 pm    Post subject: Leslie E. Robertson, structural engineer of the World Trade Center, passes away at 92 Reply with quote

Leslie E. Robertson, structural engineer of the World Trade Center, passes away at 92

Leslie Earl Robertson, 1928–2021
P.E., C.E., S.E., D.Sc., D.Eng., NAE, Dist. M.ASCE, AIJ, JSCA, AGIR, FIStructE

Few people have had as much influence on their industry as Leslie Earl Robertson did on structural engineering and architecture. In a career that spanned over 60 years, he led the design of many renowned buildings and expanded the possibilities of both disciplines.

Les Robertson was a California-born high school dropout who lied about his age to join the US Navy near the end of World War II. After his discharge from the service, he attended the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated in 1952 with a Bachelor of Science degree.

His first job was as a mathematician in the electrical engineering department of an Oakland, California firm, Kaiser Engineers. Before too long, he was helping in the firm’s structural engineering department where, under the guidance of the chief engineer, he learned the basics of what would become his passion, structural engineering.

The nights and weekends he spent teaching himself concepts such as slope deflection and the Hardy Cross method led to the deep understanding of the fundamentals of structural engineering that would become his hallmark. His mentor showed him graphical methods of structural engineering that captivated his imagination.

Robertson later found himself in Seattle—hometown and home base of Yamasaki—under the employ of structural and civil engineering firm Worthington & Skilling. Design work kicked off the World Trade Center several years later with Robertson’s firm—then Worthington, Skilling, Helle, and Jackson (WSHJ) and later Skilling, Helle, Christiansen, and Robertson (SHCR) after Robertson was made a partner in 1967—leading the engineering side. SHCR later evolved into Seattle-based Magnusson Klemencic Associates after Robertson split the practice’s New York City office in the early 1980s and founded what today is LERA. Actively working on projects into his 90s, he was recently affiliated with the Robert Bird Group.

His projects circle the globe. The list includes the IBM Building, Pittsburgh; the IBM Building, Seattle; the Federal Reserve Bank, Minneapolis; the AT&T Headquarters, New York; the Bank of China, Hong Kong; the Puerta de Europa, Madrid; the Miho Museum Bridge, Shigaraki; the International Finance Centre, Hong Kong; the Shanghai World Financial Center, Shanghai; the Lotte World Tower, Seoul; and the Merdeka PNB118,Kuala Lumpur, which will be the world’s second-tallest building when it opens in 2022.

A structural designer with strong opinions but a winning personality, Les had repeated collaborations with world-class architects such as Minoru Yamasaki, Gunnar Birkerts, Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei, and William Pedersen.

The Leslie E. Robertson-engineered World Trade Center

The project that dominated much of his life was the World Trade Center, New York. The twin towers (1,368 and 1,362 feet tall)  were the two tallest buildings in the world when they were completed in 1972 and 1973. Les was only 35 years old when he moved from Seattle to New York to lead the project for his firm Skilling, Helle, Christiansen, Robertson, and he spent more than a decade on the design and construction. Despite his early personal and professional connections to the West Coast, Robertson lived and worked in New York for most of his life, beginning in 1963 when he relocated there to work on the World Trade Center. Per a tribute published by Engineering News-Record, he had only returned to California late last year.

After surviving a truck bombing in 1993, the two towers collapsed on 11
September 2001, after each had been hit by a fuel-laden Boeing 767. The buildings survived the initial impacts but collapsed in the resulting fires. Although he wrote, ‘My sense of grief and my belief that I could have done better continue to haunt me,’ the tall building engineering community recognized that what brought down the towers was an attack of exceptional destructiveness, not a deficiency of engineering.

Les Robertson was highly respected by the structural engineers with whom he competed for projects around the world. Most viewed him as an inspiration and mentor. With generosity, he would share his thoughts and experiences on issues that ranged from technical to ethical. Many looked forward to his annual holiday card in which he and his wife, to whom he was devoted, would recount the events of the past year along with a few comments about politics and society.

In recent years, Les recorded his thoughts and work in the book, The Structure of Design: An Engineer’s Extraordinary Life in Architecture(The Monacelli Press, 2017,336 pp) and the documentary film, ‘Leaning Out: An Intimate Look at Twin Towers Engineer, Leslie E. Robertson’.

The 2018 premiere of Leaning Out. Pictured left to right are filmmaker Leonard Myszynski; Jacinda Collins, AISC structural steel specialist; John Cross, former AISC vice president; SawTeen See, Robertson’s wife and managing partner at LERA; Robertson, and filmmaker Basia Myszynski. (Courtesy AISC)

Both a Member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Distinguished Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Robertson was bestowed with a multitude of awards and accolades over his long and prolific career. Those include the Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Science and Technology for his structural design of the World Trade Center as well as a World Trade Center Individual Exceptional Service Medal for his work in the reconstruction of the twin towers following a 1993 terrorist bombing. Other industry recognitions (and there are many) include a 1989 Award of Excellence (then Construction’s Man of the Year Award) from Engineering News-Record, the Henry C. Turner Prize for Innovation in Construction Technology from the National Building Museum (2002), and a John Fritz Medal from the American Association of Engineering Societies (2012). He was received honorary degrees from several prestigious universities and served on the boards of a range of organizations including New York City’s Skyscraper Museum and the Architectural League of New York.

Les Robertson was awarded the IStructE Gold Medal in 2004. He was the first American to be so honoured since Nathan Newmark, 25 years earlier. From 1985 through 1990, Robertson also served as chairman of the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings & Urban Habitat (CTBUH). In 2001, Robertson was presented with the American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC)’s J. Lloyd Kimbrough Award, an honor named after the organization’s first president. Recognizing the pinacle of steel designers, Robertson is only one of three people to receive the award since 2000.

A birthday celebration for Robertson held at the CTBUH 2018 Tall + Urban Innovation Conference. (Courtesy CTBUH)

Les is survived by his wife and collaborator, the prominent structural engineer SawTeen See FIStructE; children Chris Robertson, Sharon Robertson and Karla Mei Robertson; and grandchildren. Another daughter, Jeanne Robertson, died in 2015.
Obituary: Leslie Earl Robertson, 1928–2021, By William F. Baker April 2021 | thestructuralengineer.org
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