In Memoriam: Leslie E. Robertson, First Recipient of the Henry C. Turner Prize

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Leslie E. Robertson
Leslie E. Robertson. Photo: LERA courtesy CTBUH.

It is with sadness that the National Building Museum notes the passing of structural engineer Leslie E. Robertson, P.E., F.ASCE, on February 11, 2021. He was the first recipient of the Museum’s Henry C. Turner Prize for Innovation in Construction Technology, in 2002. The Prize recognizes an invention, an innovative methodology, and/or exceptional leadership by an individual or team of individuals in construction technology including construction techniques, innovations and practices, project management, and engineering design.

In 2001, Robertson, who was the engineer for the World Trade Center, participated in a Museum program about tall buildings after the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11: “Building in the Aftermath: The Future of the Skyscraper.” And in 2019, a documentary about Robertson, Leaning Out, was featured in that year’s Architecture & Design Film Festival, including a post-screening conversation with the engineer.

Robertson began his career in 1952, leading to the establishing of Leslie E. Robertson Associates, R.L.L.P. (LERA), with the guiding principle of providing an imaginative and responsible approach to engineering problems. Robertson’s groundbreaking structural designs that have influenced the design and construction of tall buildings include:

  • World Trade Center, New York (circa 1968): The creation of mechanical damping units to reduce wind-induced swaying.
  • World Trade Center, New York (circa 1972): The first use of prefabricated multiple-column and spandrel-wall panels to resist the lateral force from hurricane winds and to allow column-free interior space.
  • U.S. Steel Tower, Pittsburgh (1970): The first use of a space-frame megastructure and outrigger or hat system for a high-rise building.
  • The Bank of China Tower, Hong Kong (1989): The first high-rise building to use a composite megastructure space frame to resist all loads imposed by typhoon winds and the weight of the building.

Robertson was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1975. Engineering News-Record named him Construction’s Man of the Year in 1989 and, in 1999, listed him among its Top 125 People of the Past 125 Years. Robertson earned numerous awards and honors across his career, and served on the board of several cultural and engineering organizations, including the Skyscraper Museum and the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Rensselaer, New York, him honorary doctorate degrees in engineering, and the University of Western Ontario in Canada presented him with an honorary doctorate in science.