Book Review: The Structure of Design: An Engineer’s Extraordinary Life in Architecture

Book Review: The Structure of Design: An Engineer’s Extraordinary Life in Architecture

Any good architectural bookstore has a monographs section. Typically this is where you will find architecture portfolios which look like coffee table books. This is perfectly fine if you appreciate great photography or if you happen to be a fan of the architect. But when I flip through those books, I sometimes cannot help thinking about the expression “the architect claims the glory, but the engineer has the story.” I actually just coined this phrase for the occasion, but I’m sure you get the point.

The good news is that recently one, if not, the most famous structural engineer of our age published his memoirs. The Structure of Design: An Engineer’s Extraordinary Life in Architecture is the inspiring life story of Leslie Earl Robertson, the legendary founder of engineering firm LERA. The book begins with something of an apology as Robertson needed to be urged by friends to put his life stories in writing. Luckily for us he did. Having been involved in the structural design of some of the world’s most famous and tallest buildings, Robertson is not just one of the superstars of the skyscraper world. Having interviewed him once, I can confirm he’s also one of the nicest and modest guys you’ll ever meet in the business.

selected projects

Robertson was born in Los Angeles in 1928. Being a student at the University of California at Berkely he attended a lecture by Frank Lloyd Wright, the first architect he ever met in person. Apparently having asked the right questions, Wright suggested Robertson should quit college and join his office instead. Robertson simply replied by saying that architecture, as a profession, wasn’t for him. It takes a lot of self-knowledge to pass on an offer like that. It shows that Robertson is a man of confidence.

The main part of the book contains some of the highlights taken from the long list of projects in which Robertson has been involved. As the main concern of a structural engineer is to make sure that buildings stand up, and keep on doing so, one shouldn’t expect exciting stories of buildings which collapsed or where it almost went wrong. Robertson made sure it would never come to that. These projects are all world-class structures and local landmarks, such as the IBM Building in Seattle, the US Steel Tower and One PPG Place in Pittsburgh, the Shanghai World Financial Center and of course the former World Trade Center in New York City. Robertson helped to secure the commission for the twin towers when he was only 34 years old. It catapulted him into skyscraper stardom and made him a New Yorker. Next to the challenges involved, the project chapters focus on the story of making it happen. Nowhere the stories become too technical, which makes them very readable even if you have no knowledge of engineering.

Interestingly, the projects are grouped by architect, which tells you how much Robertson values a good working relationship with the architect when working on very large projects. It is obvious he respects them a lot, and he became personal friends with many. Minoru Yamasaki, Philip Johnson, Ieoh Ming Pei, Bill Pedersen and Eugene Kohn just to name a few. At some point, you’ll realize that these collaborations have resulted in designs where instead of hiding the structural solution, it has become part of the expression. In other words, the engineering has become the architecture. How about that, Mr. Wright!

Federal Reserve Bank Building in Minneapolis was designed like a truss arch bridge, as it is shown in its exterior.

The projects chapters are alternated with stories which allow for a bit more of a personal touch. Naturally, there is a chapter on how Robertson experienced the aftermath of the events that took place on September 11, 2001. We also get to know Robertson as someone who, as a result of senseless losses during World War II, found himself to be a pacifist, one who is not shy to go out on the street to express it. The book also includes a number of personal letters, written or received by Leslie Robertson, where we get to know the man behind the math.

Leslie Robertson (right) with Philip Johnson.

“The Structure if Design” confirms what all engineers already know, which is that structural engineering can be a very exciting profession. Robertson presents himself as agnostic, which perhaps can also be explained by the utmost respect for the laws of science any engineer must have. It allows you to not just to solve problems, but also be creative while at it, time and time again. The world of engineering has given Robertson a lot to be thankful for, and in between the lines, it is obvious Robertson is indeed just that. Next to being well structured (of course), well illustrated and very accessible, the main reason why I would make this book mandatory reading, especially in engineering college is the message that the art of structural engineering is about rational beauty, and most of all, can be a lot of fun!

The Structure of Design
An Engineer’s Extraordinary Life in Architecture
author: Leslie Earl Robertson
publisher: Monacelli Press (book page)
may 2017 | hardcover | 336 pages | ISBN-13: 9781580934299

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