Leslie E. Robertson (1928-2021) was a member of the Board of Directors of MacDowell from 2004-2019, and was an American engineer. During his last residency he wrote about the evolution of the relationship between the architect and the structural engineer while, at the same time, covering his own career that included collaborations with some of the most renowned architects of his time. Among many other structures, Robertson is responsible for the structural design of the World Trade Center (New York), the United States Steel Headquarters (Pittsburgh), the Bank of China Tower (Hong Kong), and the Puerta de Europa (Madrid) as well as exceptional museums and the award-winning Miho Museum Bridge (Japan).
When the World Trade Center was destroyed on September 11, 2001, he took the resulting loss of life hard. The one saving grace was that having been designed to withstand the impact of a Boeing 707, the towers held after being hit by heavier 767s, which sliced through the steel skeleton of the buildings. Robertson later said that while he based his calculations on an initial impact of a plane, he didn’t account for a “second event,” like a fire. The intense heat created by thousands of gallons of burning jet fuel eventually weakened the steel and caused the collapses. While fire prevention is the purview of the architect, Robertson took some measure of comfort from the fact his design held up long enough for thousands of New Yorkers to flee the doomed structures.
Robertson was a Distinguished Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and received the Gold Medal of IStructE, the Gengo Matsui Prize as the Outstanding Structural Engineer in the world, and the AIA Institute Honor, and was recognized as ENR's Construction "Person of the Year." He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering as well as an Honorary and Advisory Board Member of the Center of Sustainability, Accountability and Eco-Affordability for Large Structures. He was Distinguished Engineering Alumnus of the University of California, Berkeley, from which he earned a B.S. in 1952 before going on to jobs as mathematician, electrical engineer, and structural engineer.
He received ASCE’s Outstanding Projects and Leaders (OPAL) Award, AISC’s J. Lloyd Kimbrough Award, Tokyo Society of Architects Honorary Fellowship and Medal, and was the first recipient of the Henry C. Turner Award and of the Fazlur Rahman Khan Medal. Robertson completed two cultural facilities designed in collaboration with I.M. Pei — the Suzhou Museum in China and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar. He worked with Bill Pedersen and Kohn Pedersen Fox to complete the Shanghai World Financial Center, which opened in 2008; standing at 492 meters (1,614 feet), the project won the Best Tall Building in the World honors in 2008 from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. The award jury stated that “the structure is nothing short of genius.” He also worked with KPF on the design of the 555 meter (1,821 feet) Lotte Jamsil Super Tower in Seoul, Korea.
Robertson served on the board of several cultural and professional organizations including New York City’s Skyscraper Museum. The University of Notre Dame, Lehigh University, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute awarded him honorary doctorate degrees in engineering, and the University of Western Ontario in Canada presented him with an honorary doctorate in science. Robertson taught extensively at Princeton University, and served on advisory boards to the University of California, Berkeley; Columbia University; and Pennsylvania State University; and taught extensively at Princeton University.