By Stephen McKinley
The view from her office window could not be more appropriate.
Aine Brazil — Galway-born, New York-based structural engineer — has only to turn round to look out at what is her meat and drink: skyscrapers. In the middle distance, north from her ninth floor Chelsea office is a sprawl of midtown towers, dominated by a well-known Irish landmark, the Empire State Building.
Closer to her window at Thornton-Tomasetti Engineers, a new residential block, though not her handiwork, is starting to tower. A crane belches out a puff of diesel smoke, and almost casually seems to lift a heavy piece of the building’s skeleton into place.
Skeletons are what concern structural engineers like Brazil, the often-overlooked dogsbodies who loft the elegant designs of architects into gravity-defying reality. Without its carefully designed skeletal structure, no two-dimensional tower would ever get off the drawing board.
However, in the post-Sept. 11 world, Brazil suggested, structural engineers like her are more and more in the public eye, because of the catastrophic events in Lower Manhattan.
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“I think after Sept. 11, people understand a little better that there’s a skeleton to a building that the architect isn’t responsible for,” she said, musing on the tragedy. Experts have said that the Twin Towers remained standing for as long as they did because of their unique structure.
“There are very few buildings if any, would have withstood that sort of impact, for as long,” she said. “Those planes probably sliced through some of the interior columns as well as more than half the exterior columns [on the impact side], and most buildings would have come down right away. But that design stood up long enough that it probably saved 15,000 lives.
“It’s no comfort, of course, to the families of victims, but there’s pretty much a consensus among structural engineers that the Twin Towers performed extremely well, by staying up for so long after they were attacked.”
Among structural engineers, Brazil said, there has “a lot of soul-searching afterward, after Sept. 11, thinking, if that had been one of my buildings . . . ” She did not finish the sentence, but added, after a moment, “you know in your heart and soul, that this is not something that most buildings can withstand.”
Brazil is a fluent, fast-talking Irish woman who has retained her Irish accent even after 20 years in the U.S., during which she has built up a significant reputation in her chosen field. While less closed to women than other male-dominated industries such as finance and banking, it is still one that is dominated by men, and where it is rare to meet female structural engineers, let alone one with a Galway accent.
That, Brazil says, is actually an advantage.
“One thing about the industry here in New York is, if you’re a woman, people will remember you,” Brazil said. “In any business it’s not a bad thing to be remembered, so long as it’s not for the wrong reasons.”
A glance at Brazil’s career, and it is clear that she has already left impressive, indelible marks on the skyline.
Currently, she is juggling several projects, as one of nine managing principals at Thornton-Tomasetti, the company responsible for the World Financial Center and for the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, the world’s tallest buildings. In Times Square, work is nearing completion on an Ernst and Young office building on the southwest corner of 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue. Work has started on a 50-story building just across the street.
Across the Hudson and a little farther south, she is also in charge of the construction of 30 Hudson St. in Jersey City, which will be an 800-foot-tall Goldman Sachs building. (The World Trade Center towers were just over 1,300 feet).
This tower, Brazil said, provided some challenges.
“They need a lot of redundancy in their mechanical systems, huge mechanical blocks of floors at various positions in the building. So we said, ‘OK, you’re not going to use that for office space, we’ll use that for structure.’ ” Brazil’s team built extra load-bearing spans into these floors, strengthening the building while saving on costs.
But it was her work on the New York Hospital on the east side of Manhattan that has been her greatest challenge to date, and, it could be said, her most innovative success.
The hospital needed an extension. With space limited, a radical approach was taken in the early 1990s to build the extension over the FDR Drive. To achieve this, a 485-foot platform had to be erected that would hold the weight of the 12-story extension, right on the edge of the East River.
“That was a very, very challenging job, like building a bridge over a highway and then building a building on top of it,” Brazil said. She spoke enthusiastically about the project, clearly an exciting memory from her career.
“I was there at midnight on a Saturday night when they lifted that first piece over the highway using the 1,000-ton crane barge. They were inches away from the walls of the psychiatric hospital. These pieces were built in New Jersey, 95 feet wide, three trusses together with the frame, so it was 50 feet long. These seven major segments were lifted into place and they did it overnight, and reopened the highway by 6 in the morning, so it was closed for only about five or six hours.”
Similar challenges, if on a smaller scale, have been met by Brazil in her latest Times Square project. The site that used to host the model of the Concorde is right above New York’s greatest concentration of subways.
“You have subways everywhere,” she explained. “You have subways on Seventh Avenue, subways on Broadway, you’ve got the shuttle really deep all the way on 41st Street, and on 42nd Street, the northern 30 feet of this building in the ground floor and the basement is the subway station.”
“In this city, you have to understand how to work with the Transit Authority, you know, coordinate with their engineers, make sure that they understand what you’re doing. Their first thing is protect the subway, and they’ll put roadblocks in your way if you don’t protect the subway.”
And besides the Transit Authority, a much older adversary sometimes stumps structural engineers — but never for very long. Manhattan’s bedrock, though excellent for building on, is sometimes so resistant that it requires explosives.
“You can get permits to blast in Manhattan,” Brazil said. “But it’s less expensive to build high-rise building when your foundations are sitting right on the rock.”
Brazil has good foundations of her own. She explained that what she called her “run of luck” started back in Salthill when she went to “a very small, relatively new secondary school” in Galway.
“They decided to offer honors math and there were three of us who took it,” she said. “It was almost like individual attention, and then going into engineering, I was strong in science and math, so it was a choice.
“I’ve talked to a lot of women who have felt some sort of negative feedback and even women who’ve been in college and not felt accepted. Nobody ever said to me in Ireland that I couldn’t become an engineer because I was a woman.”
University College, Galway followed, then further study for her master’s degree at Imperial College, London. She was the only woman in a class of 20. That climate is now changing for women in structural engineering — in 2000, Thornton-Tomasetti hired nine women to five men as engineers in its New York office.
In 1982, Brazil moved with her husband, also a structural engineer, to New York for two years.
“Twenty years later, we’re still here,” she said, smiling. “For a structural engineer, there’s probably not another city where there’s more interesting work going on. It’s not just the work that we do in New York, it’s also the firms that are based in New York from all over the world, so you have a lot of opportunity to do interesting projects. All of the work that I’ve done to advance my career has been here.”
Nor has being Irish been a drawback. Brazil is proud that Thorton-Tomasetti took the contract to rehabilitate the Empire State Building’s facade in 1988. It is, after all, a building that was built largely by Irish construction workers.
“Oh, today, people definitely remember that I’m Irish,” she said. “Here I am 20 years later, and my accent is still there. It sticks in the memory, and when you do well, you create new opportunities.”