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The man behind the towers: His buildings lost, but not his faith

Leslie Robertson

Leslie Robertson Photo Credit: RJ Mickelson/amNY

For one New Yorker, the Twin Towers were more than just icons of the skyline and symbols of American capitalism.

They stood as Gotham’s tallest buildings because of him.

Leslie Robertson was the engineering whiz kid whose innovations helped erect the 110-story towers. And when his buildings were savagely attacked and collapsed, taking close to 3,000 lives, he felt a shock and horror that is a structural engineer’s worst nightmare.

“It’s still not easy to talk about,” the soft-spoken Robertson, 83, told amNewYork. “I do it because I’ve trained myself to do it."

At times, he grew teary discussing the tragedy, often while glancing at Ground Zero, which is visible from his Broad Street office. 

Having poured more than 40 years of his life into the construction and maintenance of the original World Trade Center, Robertson — among the last surviving creators of the iconic complex — has spent the past 10 years trying to accept the 9/11 terrorist attacks as part of “the risk that we all take” just being alive.

And while the darkest day in New York history brought down his towers, one of the successor buildings will give him perhaps some measure of symbolic redemption on those sacred 16 acres.

His firm, Leslie E. Robertson Associates, is the structural engineer for Four World Trade Center, the 72-story tower rising next to where the Twin Towers stood.

Though Robertson himself is not working on the project (he retired in 1996, but remains a self-described workaholic), he offers guidance to his team.

The horror of 9/11

Four World Trade Center was a project Robertson could never have imagined in the days after 9/11, when he feared the collapse of the towers all but assured the end of his career and of his namesake firm.

“I figured that’s it — pack up your books, and that’s the way it is,” Robertson recalled.

Instead, his firm flourished, even as Robertson endured withering scrutiny about the robustness of his design, among whose features was a load-bearing facade, allowing for sweeping, column-free office spaces. 

Robertson faced questions from those who lost loved ones on 9/11. Some wondered why the buildings caved to the fires, and others attributed blame to details, such as faulty bolts. Years of investigations, speculation and recriminations followed.

Ultimately, the towers were not designed for that kind of trauma. (Robertson said he engineered the buildings to withstand the impact of a low, slow-flying 707 jet, not the fully fueled 767s that hit them.)

Yet, his towers withstood both crashes, and remained upright long enough to allow thousands of office workers to escape, and collapsed straight down, not toppling into the neighborhood. A 2005 federal study found that the vast fires were the ultimate culprit, not the jet impacts.

Robertson has moved past criticisms — of which those that he’s leveled against himself aren’t the least — that the towers should have been built sturdier.

“I had a lot of time to think about it, and I tried to sort it out in my mind if there was something I should have done that I didn’t,” Robertson said. “I couldn’t come up with anything ... I mean, you can always make a building stronger.”

A shoulder to cry on

After 9/11, Robertson assumed a new, unexpected role: a therapist of sorts for family members of 9/1l victims.

“Many came to me, and I really had difficulty understanding why,” Robertson said. “Much of it was very unnerving. What people wanted to know was: Did my sister, brother, wife, husband die immediately, or was it a slow burning to death? And, of course, I was not able to answer that — and I was not prepared to lie.

“Sometimes it was no more than just having a hug or a cry. Sometimes it was more serious: I was invited to go to a psychiatrist’s office with a person. … And at the same time I was struggling in my own mind about the design [of the WTC].”

Recently, Robertson was at Ground Zero, where he visits from time to time. He surveyed his firm’s new building, and gazed up at the soaring One World Trade Center, the structure that has inherited the name of his lost North Tower, the first to be struck by a jet on 9/11.

Asked for his take on the new WTC, Robertson said he’s developed “a defense mechanism” on the subject.

“I don’t think personally about the buildings on the site,” he said, but “you cannot help but feel personally about the people who died.”

And it is the place where his towers stood that the lives of those lost will be remembered for time immemorial.

“What’s there now — the trees, what will be the waterfalls — I think that’s wonderful, absolutely wonderful,” he said of the memorial.

Twin towers like his will never grace the downtown skyline again, something Robertson is at peace with.

“They were symbolic,” he said of the towers, “and remain so. … But I think that whatever it is — whether it’s medicine, or art, or architecture — you have to look to the future.”

***

Leslie Robertson at a glance

Personal: Born in Manhattan Beach, Calif., Robertson, 83, lives on the Upper West Side with his wife, SawTeen See, 57. See, who was born and raised in Malaysia, is the managing partner at Robertson’s engineering firm. Robertson has four children.

Education: Earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the School of Civil Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley in 1952. He has since received four doctoral degrees in science and engineering from other schools.

Selection of projects:
Bank of China Tower, Hong Kong
- Completed in 1990
- 1,007 feet tall
- First building outside the U.S. to break the 1,000-foot-tall mark. Tallest building in Hong Kong until 1992.

Shanghai World Financial Center
- Completed in 2008
- 1,614 feet tall
- Third-tallest skyscraper in the world
- Contains the world’s second-highest hotel (Park Hyatt) and highest observation deck

Izod Center/ Meadowlands Arena
- Opened in 1981 in East Rutherford, N.J.
- Seating capacity of 20,000
- Former home of the Nets
- Primarily used for sporting events and concerts
 

Rolando Pujol is a managing editor at amNY. Follow him on Twitter @RolandoPujol.

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