Monday, August 1, 2011

Towering Comeback: Man Who Engineered Twin Towers Helps Rebuild WTC

His towers may be gone, but not his faith. Ten years on, the man who engineered the World Trade Center looks ahead.

For one New Yorker, the Twin Towers were more than just icons of the skyline and symbols of American capitalism. They stood as New York City's tallest buildings because of him.

Leslie Robertson was the engineering whiz kid whose innovations helped erect the 110-story towers. And when his buildings were savagely attacked and collapsed, taking close to 3,000 lives, he felt a shock and horror that is a structural engineer’s worst nightmare.

Having poured more than 40 years of his life into the construction and maintenance of the original World Trade Center, Robertson — among the last surviving creators of the iconic complex — has spent the past 10 years trying to accept the 9/11 terrorist attacks as part of “the risk that we all take” just being alive.

And while the darkest day in New York history brought down his towers, one of the successor buildings will give him perhaps some measure of symbolic redemption on those sacred 16 acres. His firm, Leslie E. Robertson Associates, is the structural engineer for Four World Trade Center, the 72-story tower rising next to where the Twin Towers stood. Though Robertson himself is not working on the project (he retired in 1996), he offers guidance to his team.

The Horror of 9/11

Four World Trade Center was a project Robertson could never have imagined in the days after 9/11, when he feared the collapse of the towers all but assured the end of his career and of his namesake firm.

Instead, his firm flourished, even as Robertson endured withering scrutiny about the robustness of his design, among whose features was a load-bearing facade, allowing for sweeping, column-free office spaces.

Robertson faced questions from those who lost loved ones on 9/11. Some wondered why the buildings caved to the fires, and others attributed blame to details, such as faulty bolts. Years of investigations, speculation and recriminations followed.

Ultimately, the towers were not designed for that kind of trauma. Robertson said he engineered the buildings to withstand the impact of a low, slow-flying 707 jet, not the fully fueled 767s that hit them. Yet, his towers withstood both crashes, and remained upright long enough to allow thousands of office workers to escape, and collapsed straight down, not toppling into the neighborhood. A 2005 federal study found that the vast fires were the ultimate culprit, not the jet impacts. Robertson has moved past criticisms — of which those that he’s leveled against himself aren’t the least — that the towers should have been built sturdier.

Recently, Robertson was at Ground Zero, where he visits from time to time. He surveyed his firm’s new building, and gazed up at the soaring One World Trade Center, the structure that has inherited the name of his lost North Tower, the first to be struck by a jet on 9/11.

Twin towers like his will never grace the downtown skyline again, something Robertson is at peace with. “They were symbolic, and remain so… but you have to look to the future.”

Leslie Robertson Projects

Shanghai World Financial Center - 1,614 feet tall. Third-tallest skyscraper in the world. Completed in 2008, it contains the world’s second-highest hotel (Park Hyatt) and world's highest observation deck.

Bank of China Tower - Hong Kong  - 1,007 feet tall. First building outside the U.S. to break the 1,000-foot-tall mark. Completed in 1990; Tallest building in Asia until 1992.

Izod Center/ Meadowlands Arena. Opened in 1981 in East Rutherford, N.J. Former home of the NY Nets, now used primarily for sporting events and concerts.