Leslie Earl Robertson, 1928–2021
P.E., C.E., S.E., D.Sc., D.Eng., NAE, Dist. M.ASCE, AIJ, JSCA, AGIR, Chartered Structural Engineer
1958 to 2012 – Leslie E. Robertson Associates, Founder, Former Partner
Remembering Leslie E. Robertson, 1928–2021
February 12, 2021
The Partners and Staff of LERA are saddened by the passing of Les Robertson. Les led this firm with vigor and grace for more than four decades, and all of us at LERA, indeed the engineering community at large, were enriched by him and by his designs. His spirit continues on in our work today.
A Retired Partner of the firm, Les leaves behind a superlative legacy from a career spanning six decades. He joined the firm, then known as Worthington-Skilling, at the start of his career in 1958, and eventually rose through the ranks to become Partner. Although he resigned as Partner in 1994 to take a step back from managerial duties, he remained a key player on design teams until his departure from the firm in 2012. As a leader, he instilled the values that he upheld in his own work: approaching engineering challenges with imagination and responsibility.
A giant of the structural engineering profession, Les pioneered the structural design of tall buildings. Some of his most notable projects include the World Trade Center (New York, NY); the U.S. Steel Tower (Pittsburgh, PA); the Bank of China Tower (Hong Kong); Puerta de Europa (Madrid, Spain); the Shanghai World Financial Center (Shanghai, China); the Suzhou Museum (Suzhou, China); Meyerson Symphony Center (Dallas, TX); and the Miho Museum and Bridge (Kyoto, Japan). In addition to buildings, he also devised engineering solutions for several large-scale sculptures.
Helping to create some of the most innovative and formally daring buildings of the modern era, he developed longstanding professional, and sometimes personal, relationships with leading figures in art and architecture at the time, including I.M. Pei, Minoru Yamasaki, Philip Johnson, Max Abramovitz, Romaldo Giurgola, Richard Serra, William Pedersen, Kiyonori Kikutake, Beverly Pepper, and Gunnar Birkerts.
Over his storied career, he cultivated numerous groundbreaking innovations in the structural design and construction of tall buildings, such as:
designing 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 (Bank of China Tower, 1989);
the creation of mechanical damping units to reduce wind-induced swaying (World Trade Center, circa 1968);
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 (World Trade Center, circa 1972);
the first use of a space-frame megastructure and outrigger or hat system for a high-rise building (World Trade Center, 1963, and the U.S. Steel Tower, 1965); and
the creation of the shaftwall system, now near-universally used for fire-resistive walls in high-rise buildings.
With his innovations in structural engineering, he set new standards in the design and construction of tall buildings. A leader in the application of computers to design, he also advanced the art and science of structural engineering theory, and his work on skyscrapers, domes, bridges and long-span roofs translated this engineering theory into practical technological breakthroughs that freed architects to dream up larger, more complex buildings.
Les earned numerous awards and honors throughout his career, including the Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Science and Technology for his structural design of the World Trade Center that withstood the 1993 terrorist bombing. He was also awarded the World Trade Center Individual Exceptional Service Medal for his work in the reconstruction of the twin towers. Additional honors and awards included the IStructE Gold Medal, in recognition of unique and outstanding contributions to the advancement of structural engineering; the Gengo Matsui Prize, in recognition of those advancing the field of structural engineering; the ASCE Outstanding Projects and Leaders (OPAL) Award, honoring the lifetime accomplishments of outstanding civil engineering leaders; the AISC J. Lloyd Kimbrough Award, honoring engineers and architects who are universally recognized as the preeminent steel designers of their era; Engineering News-Record’s (ENR) “Man of the Year”; the inaugural Henry C. Turner Prize, recognizing invention, innovative methodology and/or exceptional leadership by an individual or team of individuals in construction technology; and the inaugural Fazlur R. Khan Lifetime Achievement Medal, recognizing excellence in technical design and/or research that has made a significant contribution to the design of tall buildings and the built urban environment.
A Member of the National Academy of Engineering, a Distinguished Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and Advisory Board Member of the Center of Sustainability, Accountability, and Eco-Affordability for Large Structures, he served on the board of several notable cultural and professional organizations, including New York City’s Skyscraper Museum, the Architectural League of New York and the MacDowell Colony. He was also a Distinguished Alumnus of the University of California at Berkeley, and received doctoral degrees from Lehigh University, the University of Notre Dame, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Western Ontario. Throughout his career, he lectured at universities around the world, and had a passion for inspiring young engineering minds. In 2017, Les published a book chronicling his life and career, titled The Structure of Design: An Engineer's Extraordinary Life in Architecture.
Affectionately known as “Les” to his friends, family, and colleagues, he was a devoted family man and dedicated social activist for civil rights, world peace, and the environment. Our thoughts are with his wife SawTeen See, a fellow structural engineer and retired LERA Partner with whom he worked side-by-side for much of his career, his beloved children and grandchildren.
The University of California, Berkeley
"Leslie Earl Robertson and SawTeen See Scholarship"
This fund is designated to support students with an emphasis on supporting women.
Call Berkeley at 510-643-9789 to make a donation.