William Baker: Structural Engineer and Problem Solver
Structural Engineer and Problem Solver
We caught up with Bill, and he shared his views on the future of engineering (hint: it involves AI), where he gets inspiration, and more. Our conversation has been edited for length.
William F. “Bill” Baker, M.S. ’80, is perhaps the most important living structural engineer. His buttressed core design enabled the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai to exceed the previous record by over 1,000 feet.
His other design credits include the Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, the Franklin Center in Chicago, and NATO Headquarters in Brussels. He holds four honorary doctorates and teaches at the University of Cambridge, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and UIUC. He spent his career with the Chicago architecture and engineering firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. He retired as a general partner and currently serves as a consulting partner.
What was the most important thing you learned as a student?
After I completed my master’s in civil engineering at UIUC, I spent another year taking all the courses I possibly could. That gave me a deep knowledge of theory. As one of my professors used to say, theory is practical.
Engineers create things that don’t exist yet. You can’t look up what you’re going to do in a book. So, what do you do? You go back to theory. That lets you draw on everything that’s been done before and synthesize something new. It lets you see things and make connections that no one else will.
This generation of engineering students in particular should master theory. Right now, a big part of the engineer’s job is calculating things. But I think AI will soon take us into a post-calculational era where everything is done automatically. In this era, an engineer with a deep theoretical education will really stand out.
Where do you look for inspiration?
Physics and experience. Understand the natural world and know what people before you have done.
When I travel, I look at the buildings and bridges, and sometimes I sketch them. Taking a photograph isn’t good enough because drawing forces me to see all the details. It forces me to really understand what they did. It gives me more knowledge.
Sometimes we use computational tools — we may use something called topological optimization. The stuff it returns won’t always be practical as a solution, but it’s a very good source of ideas.
It’s also important to do “blue sky research,” something that has no immediate use and just piques your interest. If you take the time to really study and understand it, you’ll find uses for the ideas eventually.
Ideas come from everywhere, but it can also be said that design is a search for constraints. This includes the physics of the environment and the client’s requirements. That lets us home in on the best solution to a problem.
Which projects do you find most fulfilling?
I like pedestrian bridges because they give more geometric freedom in the design. But it’s always rewarding to look at something that you designed [that’s been] realized, to have something you can go look at that’s yours. That’s one of the reasons I was drawn to engineering when I was younger.
The philosophy of my firm, SOM, is architecture and engineering which expresses technology. I’m always drawn to designs which are inseparable from the structure. In that respect, Engineering Hall is one of the most honest buildings on the Urbana campus. The old masonry is not just the skin. It’s load bearing. It solves the building’s heating and cooling issues. The bricks are the architecture and the engineering.
That’s the approach we took a few years ago when I worked on the Campus Instructional Facility. We exposed all the beams. We wanted the structure to be seen. We tried to honestly express the technology.
“An engineer’s creativity never levels off. It only grows and grows with experience. You’ll know why things are happening. You’ll have different solutions to problems. You’ll have more and more value.”
How do you balance the tension between creative and practical considerations?
There should always be tension. Tension creates questions, and that makes people come up with ideas.
My firm is unusual in that we put equal emphasis on architecture and engineering, so there’s always a back-and-forth between those two groups. Whenever I express an idea to my colleagues, they hear it through the filter of their own thoughts and perspectives. Even if they repeat it back, they’ll say something completely different. And in what they say, I’ll see something that I haven’t thought about.
Never underestimate your colleagues. You have to understand that your colleagues are trying to achieve something different than you are. The whole collaborative process is drawing on the strengths of everyone’s ideas to reach a compromise, and that’s how the problem gets solved.
Why do you go back to teach?
Part of it is that my colleagues and I, through both research and experience, have amassed a huge body of knowledge, and much of it just isn’t taught in the classroom. It would be a shame if that knowledge disappeared because there would be fewer ideas for future engineers to draw on.
Another reason is that teaching and research force you to organize your thoughts and deeply understand the concepts. If you think you understand something, try writing a paper about it! The holes in your own knowledge become apparent. And then, if you still think you understand it, try teaching it! You’re forced to fill in those holes and work everything out from scratch yourself.
When I first started out at SOM, I spent my Saturdays at the Illinois Institute of Technology working with students then having lunch with them and the faculty. Just talking to the architecture master’s students and answering questions that I thought were obvious was a challenge that reinforced my own understanding going forward.
BILL BAKER’S STRUCTURAL ACHIEVEMENTS
Burj Khalifa, Dubai
Completed in 2010, it remains the world’s tallest building. The final height of 2,722 feet was possible because Baker’s buttressed core design is unusually resistant to buckling from wind forces.
Tower Palace III, Seoul
Baker’s first design with a buttressed core, demonstrating the concept and suggesting that it could be used for even taller buildings. It was completed in 2004 and stands at 865 feet.
Franklin Center, Chicago
Completed in 1989 to serve as corporate headquarters for AT&T, it is the tallest building constructed in Chicago in the last quarter of the 20th century, at 1,007 feet.
Pearl River Tower, Guangzhou
One of the most environmentally friendly skyscrapers, it has built-in wind turbines and has the potential to create as much energy as it consumes for net-zero emissions.
NATO Headquarters, Brussels
The campus is designed to evoke interlocking fingers, symbolizing peace. The buildings are sustainably designed, with solar cells, natural ventilation, and geothermal heating and cooling.
Renaissance Center, Detroit
Baker planned renovations to the complex when it was purchased by General Motors in 1996. His designs included expansions to accommodate a large corporation and a series of walkways and pavilions to accommodate pedestrians.