In Memoriam

Remembering engineer Robert Silman, 1935-2018

Robert Silman, 1935-2018 (Courtesy Silman)

“Hidden in plain sight,” describes the legacy of the beloved structural engineer, Robert Silman, who died at age 83 on July 31. The great landmarks he renewed, along with the new ones he realized, prove this point, from Carnegie Hall, the Guggenheim Museum, and Fallingwater to the Polshek Partnership’s Weill Recital Hall, Renzo Piano’s Whitney Museum, and Freelon Adjaye Bond’s National Museum of African American History & Culture. Working until just a few weeks before losing his long battle with cancer, Silman communicated through intuitive problem solving, enriched by a lifelong curiosity about the creative intent of his colleagues as well as his forebears, whose accomplishments could only stand with his benevolent intervention. His engineering always deferred to the original intent of the architects he worked with, either in person or posthumously.

Mr. Silman’s career as practitioner, educator, and advocate inspired thousands of students and young professionals across two generations and set a standard of engineering excellence that merged scientific knowledge with social need. What distinguished Silman, especially in the realm of preservation architecture, was a determination to go beyond the mandated assumptions of stability and safety by introducing an innovative elegance marrying new technologies with historic form. His solutions attest to a poetry of invisibility—a symbiosis of means and methods that defined new possibilities and set professional precedents. Right to the last, he taught a course at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design called “The Philosophy of Technology,” imbuing a spirit of inquiry best sustained by a broad cultural awareness and willingness to innovate in the face of restrictive axioms.

When at Silman’s urging, architect Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner was brought on as a young consultant by the Hillier Group in 1996 to renovate the notoriously complex, leaky roof of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Racine, Wisconsin, Wingspread, she describes it as a time when “shoving in steel” was the common engineering contingency. Silman instead “turned to the nascent art of computer modeling, using data from an exacting load analysis to solve the problem in a bold new way.” Instead of ill-suited roofers, boat builders banded sheets of carbon fiber, used before then only on ships and jets, around the replacement roof. She added, “He made connections between both people and ideas with a generosity of spirit that inspired all of us working alongside [him]. As with so many others, he set my career in motion and did so at a time when opportunities for women practitioners were still limited.”

After studying architecture at Cornell and at NYU graduate school, Silman worked entry-level jobs at Ammann & Whitney, Ove Arup & Partners, and Severud Associates before founding his namesake firm in 1966, a year after the passage of New York’s landmarks law. Jobs on early preservation efforts that were too small for big competitors led to a lifetime of civic engagement and advocacy, even at times when such work might be at odds with the more lucrative prospects of demolition and new construction.

Just two years later, the 1968 advent of Beyer Blinder Belle spawned a bond, now in its 50th year. Jack Beyer conveys his loss: “We called ourselves the ‘Four Brothers,’ as Bob demonstrated from the start his peerless skill at weaving strict systems into the historic fabric of landmark buildings. Thanks to his conceptual thinking and capacity to listen even to those with little of use to say, he was never intimidated by existing conditions.” Beyer continued, “Bob and I served as volunteer advisers to the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, where he figured out how to rebuild and seismically stabilize its great 16th-century wooden pagoda temples. Without reimagining their un-mortared brick foundations, any aboveground restoration work would have failed. His impact was global.”

Anthony C. Wood, founder and chair of the New York Preservation Archive Project, recalled, “Whenever preservationists were confronted with a building that opponents said was too far gone to save, the ‘go to’ person to call for structural help was Bob Silman. Generously responding to such calls, he could work his magic to find a way to save the day.”

For 11-year Silman Associate Justin Den Herder, “Bob reinforced the importance of all the arts. He was a design-minded collaborator because he was genuinely in love with architecture. He was an effective communicator because he was passionate about literature. He even kept a poster of Gustav Mahler over his desk that likely informed his work at Carnegie Hall, where the German maestro conducted his final concert in 1911 just a few months before his death. No doubt Mahler approved the results of Bob’s graceful hand.”

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