Reaching New Heights: Fazlur Rahman Khan and the Skyscraper

The story of American structural engineer Fazlur Rahman Khan, whose pioneering innovations in skyscraper design transformed the landscape of America’s largest cities.

Fazlur Rahman Khan
Funding Initiative
Diversity Development Fund
Headshot of Laila Kazmi

Laila Kazmi

Laila Kazmi is a two-time regional Emmy® Award-winning producer, director, editor, and a six-time nominee. Her documentary shorts have aired on PBS television stations, Seattle Channel, streamed on PBS NewsHour, and screened at various film festivals. Laila was series producer for digital series Borders & Heritage, streaming on Laila Show more grew up in Chicago, where she first learned about Fazlur Rahman Khan on a visit to the Sears (now Willis) Tower. The Fazlur Rahman Khan documentary is Laila's first feature-length film. Show less

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The Film

 In 1955, America was in the midst of a post-World War II economic boom. There was a flurry of new construction. In Chicago, known as the birthplace of the high-rise, Mies van der Rohe was teaching at the Illinois Institute of Technology and his modernist ideas led to the emergence of the Second Chicago School of Architecture (a period of architectural innovation and creativity that changed skylines around the world from 1940-1975). A young engineering graduate, Fazlur Rahman Khan, a Muslim immigrant from Dhaka, Bangladesh, arrived in Chicago after earning two master’s degrees and a PhD in just three years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He soon found himself employed at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, one of the world’s top architecture firms. There, he would go on to overcome challenges and design some of America’s most iconic buildings including the Sears (now Willis) Tower and the John Hancock Center in Chicago. His pioneering development of structural systems in skyscraper design literally transformed the landscape of America’s largest cities and paved the way for supertall skyscrapers worldwide, allowing builders to go higher than ever before possible.

Before leaving Dhaka, Khan had never seen anything close to the tall buildings that he would later pioneer. In 1982, while at the peak of his career, Dr. Khan died unexpectedly from a heart attack at age 52. Fazlur Rahman Khan and the Skyscraper is the untold story of unprecedented technical innovations by a man who was curious about the world and loved people, music, and poetry as much as he loved science and engineering.