Of Pyramids and Skyscrapers

The “Great Pyramid” was built in 2,700 B.C. in Egypt. “The established theory holds that the pyramids were constructed with stone blocks carved at various quarries and transported to the site of the pyramids. It is estimated that it took 20 years to build the Great Pyramid and that each year 100,000 men were needed in the building process. In 1988 a chemical engineer, Dr. Joseph Davidovits, on the basis of extensive research that he had done, proposed in a book written in collaboration with Margie Morris a new theory according to which the blocks with which the pyramids were built are made of concrete that was poured in forms in situ at the site of the pyramid. By this method , only 1,400 men would have been needed to work on the construction of the Great Pyramid. This kind of concrete, which is called geopolymeric concrete, was prepared with a ‘cement’ which had been used for thousands of years in the area and had as basic constituents materials that were mined in a series of mines in the Sinai. Davidovits succeeded in resynthesizing the polymeric concrete of the ancient Egyptians in a modern laboratory.

Whether it was 100,000 or 1,400 people who worked to build the Great Pyramid, the questions and answers concerning the problem of technology are very revealing. Who decided that the Great Pyramid should be built-a single individual, the Pharaoh. What was the aim of the construction of the Great Pyramid-none! In essence, it was a structure without any meaning. Who can claim that if the 100,000 or the 1,400 people had the power to make a decision themselves they would have decided to build the Great Pyramid by working for 20 years in vain? This ‘urge ‘ to use technology to create huge monumental structures, which one could call the ‘pyramid syndrom’, continued to prevail in the centuries that followed the building of the Great Pyramid and still prevails to this day.

Thus, in 1889, a civil engineer by the name of Gustav Eiffel was instructed to build the Eiffel Tower on the occasion of the (commercial) exhibition that was to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution. Could it be that even if the aim of the commemoration was right, more modesty was in order (the tower has twice the height of the Great Pyramid) for a historic event which had a certain meaning when the event took place? And the French story continued with Mitterend’s glass (dwarf) Pei pyramid in the court of the Louvre, etc.

The ‘pyramid syndrom’ was transmitted also to the ‘new world’ of America with the construction of the Empire State Building in New York in 1931, which had a height of 1,250 feet (that is 262 feet above the Eiffel Tower) and which later reached the height of 1,472 feet through the addition of a 222-foot TV antenna… Anyway, the ‘first’ in relation to the skyscraper branch of the ‘pyramid syndrom’ has moved to Southeast Asia!” [cited from: Nikos Raptis, “Technology: Past, Present (Future?)”, Democracy&Nature, Vol.4,No.1, 1998, p.4,5,6]

That the skyscraper is the “monumental” structure par excellence of the US culture is difficult to dispute. “The decision for the construction of multistory buildings in any country, either for living space or for work is a political act with very important consequences on the population of that country and on the natural environment. In the West the (content) of this political act is decided and implemented by the corporate elite. The state (with its zoning regulations,etc) is a tool of that elite…

(The) American psyche is saturated by ‘machismo’, a Spanish word, … which describes the glorification of the exclusively masculine aggressiveness.

To understand the meaning of the machismo of the corporate elite the following example is adequate: A few years ago two multistory buildings were being constructed simultaneously in New York and in Chicago, which would have been the tallest buildings in the world. The respective owners demanded from their architects and their (civil) engineers to add a few feet to their structures, subsequently to the original design(!), so that they could attain the ‘first’ as the tallest building and their manliness stay intact. That was a cowboy- type duel, however not with six-shooters, but with skyscrapers.”

(Note: The above quoted passage, written in 1981, referred to the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Sears Tower in Chicago. The occasion was a book on the problem of earthquakes.)

Fazlur R. Khan, a civil engineer, was a native of Bangladesh (known also as East Pakistan before Bangladesh). Khan is considered as one of the greatest geniuses in the history of civil engineering. “Khan has come up with innovation upon innovation that cut costs while simultaneously pushing buildings higher.” (Engineering News-Record, ENR, Feb 10, ”72, p. 20.)

Khan’s revolutionary structural design of a skyscraper is that the most ECONOMICAL way to build a skyscraper is the one in which it is built “with thin solid walls, like a TUBE… But we’ve got to live in it, so we punch small holes in the tube for windows, getting approximately the same structural effect,” (the words in quotation marks belong to Khan himself, ENR, Feb 10, ’72, p. 23).

Khan was the “father” of the “tubular design” method for building skyscrapers. Besides the WTC twin towers, Khan’s method was used to build the 1,136-ft-high Standard Oil Co. (Indiana) Building in Chicago, the 1,450-ft-high Sears Tower and the 1,105-ft-high John Hancock Building, both in Chicago. Another building that uses the Khan concept is the 52-story One Shell Plaza (Data from ENR , Feb 10, ’72, p. 21). We assume that the later Southeast Asia skyscrapers also used the Khan method.

“After completing his undergraduate work at the Bengal Engineering College, where he graduated at the top of his class… (i)n 1952 he qualified as a Fulbright scholar, and also won a scholarship from the Pakistani government. As a result he enrolled at the University of Illinois, Urbana, for three years…” (ENR, Feb 10, ’72, p.25). Khan developed his method of “tubular design” in the early ‘ 60s. One does not exaggerate by saying that one man, Khan, single-handedly shaped the high-rise buildings of the world, after the ‘ 60s, but also that he gave them the capability to reach the present heights. Khan died quite young and to honor him his bust was placed in front of one of the tallest buildings in Chicago.

In July 1945 an American B-25 bomber crashed on the Empire State Building. A few dozens of of people working at the floor that the aircraft hit the building died, but the structure suffered only minor damage. The Empire State Building had been built by the conventional design method of beams and columns.

The WTC twin towers had an exterior tube-like sheath that consisted of groups of three steel columns (they are the trident-like parts that can be seen pointing skywards after the destruction). These groups were positioned side by side very close to one another to approximate a tube, according to the Khan method. In the interior of each tower there was a 79×139-feet core. The core of each tower contained 104 elevator cabs running in 36 shafts.

Each tower was 209×209 ft in plan and was COLUMN FREE between the exterior sheath and the core, thus providing 35-feet clear spans on the east and west sides and 65-feet clear spans on the north and south sides. This 65 feet was a quite “daring” dimension, as it was about 4 to 5 times greater than the average dimension in the conventional design (of the Empire State).

Each column of the 3-column group was a box-type column made up of steel plate up to 3 in. thick. (All these data, dimensions, etc, from ENR, Jan 1, ’70, p. 26, 27.)

A probable manner of collapse of the towers could be the following: Each aircraft at the moment of collision cut some of the columns of the sheath. The explosion that followed on the one hand must have cut some more columns and on the other hand softened the rest of the steel columns to a red-hot condition, thus initiating the downward movement of the upper part of the towers, which then fell on the lower floors causing a domino-like collapse.

The Empire State Building has a height of 1,250 feet. The WTC towers were 1,350 feet high. The difference in height is not that big. The aircrafts that hit the towers were very big, yet a B-25 bomber has not an insignificant size. Of course, there is the factor of the amount of fuel. However, we think that the conventional design of the Empire State Building as opposed to the revolutionary Khan design of the WTC towers played a critical role.

Also, one more critical factor could be the fire protection of steel frame structures. Concrete encasement costs over 10 times more than spray-applied fire proofing. The towers had not concrete encasement protection. The Empire State Building seems to have one.

Khan combined “technical genius with a sensitivity for people and the places in which they must live and work…” Khan himself said: “I like to consider myself a citizen of the world. If we don’t have a sense of compassion on a world basis and on a-man-to-man basis, we’re never going to get out of the wars we’re in.”

If Khan were alive today his pain would have been more unbearable than the pain of any man on this earth.

When Fazlur R. Khan died he already was a US citizen.

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