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Nordenson engineers niche through creativity and collaboration

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- In some quarters structural engineering is seen strictly as a pragmatic field, populated by people who possess a ''let's get the job done'' attitude. But others approach the profession as a highly creative endeavor, one that involves close collaboration between engineer and architect from the early stages of conception to a building's execution.

Guy Nordenson

Structural engineer and architecture professor Guy Nordenson has successfully collaborated with many of the leading architects practicing today. He recently gained attention for his work on an early version (pictured) of the design that was eventually adopted for the Freedom Tower, the building that will be the centerpiece of the rebuilt World Trade Center site.

Guy Nordenson, professor of architecture and founder of his eponymous structural engineering firm, is one of the leading practitioners of the second type.

Nordenson speaks the language of architects. And that has enabled him to become a highly effective teacher of architecture students as well as one of the few structural engineers whose work has been internationally recognized for its creativity.

''He's not just interested in structural engineering as a discipline. He sees it in a broader cultural perspective,'' said Stan Allen, dean of the School of Architecture. ''At some schools of architecture, a course on structures is like cod liver oil -- you force it down students' throats because it's good for them, but they don't enjoy it much. Guy is unique because he has the students genuinely interested in the material he presents.''

And in his professional life, Nordenson (whose first name is pronounced GHEE) has successfully collaborated with many of the leading architects practicing today, including Richard Meier, James Polshek and Steven Holl, creating innovative projects for the last two decades. He has worked on projects ranging from the Helsinki Museum of Contemporary Art and the Santa Fe Opera House to a 10,500-car parking structure at Disneyland and Ferragamo stores in New York and Italy.

A collective approach

Nordenson, who has taught at Princeton since 1995 and recently was promoted from associate professor to professor, founded his engineering firm, Guy Nordenson and Associates, in New York City in 1997 after practicing for 20 years in New York and San Francisco. His office is located a block from Ground Zero. Three days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Nordenson mobilized a group of structural engineers to work in shifts 24 hours a day assessing the level of damage at more than 400 buildings surrounding Ground Zero.

Nordenson recently gained attention for his work on an early version of the design that was eventually adopted for the Freedom Tower, the building that will be the centerpiece of the rebuilt World Trade Center site. The design, which called for a torqued tower that would taper as it rose in the sky, was developed by Nordenson using ideas from several different sources in the collaborative style that he favors.

''We live in a period where there is this notion that creativity is the work of an individual,'' he explained. ''But one of the mysteries of creativity is that sometimes something starts to bubble up of its own accord -- an archetypal form -- from different sources.''

But the process of choosing a design and an architect for the rebuilding ''became a situation where there was no clear way to continue that collective approach,'' Nordenson said, so his firm withdrew from the project.

Nordenson currently is working on several intriguing ventures, including: the Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, a 76,000-square-foot building with outside walls constructed entirely of glass; the expansion of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, expected to be completed in November; and a dormitory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology designed by Holl, which makes innovative use of prefabricated concrete.

''Instead of the structure being buried inside of the building, it is a kind of exoskeleton,'' Allen said of the dorm. ''The structure itself is the primary expression of the building.''

Holl, who has collaborated with Nordenson for the last 20 years, cherishes his openness to new ideas.

''No matter how wild and unrealistic my first sketch might be, Guy listens with a wry smile and never utters the word 'impossible,''' Holl said. ''With Guy every imagined angle is allowed initial validity.''

A love of literature

Not many engineers considered majoring in comparative literature, but that is the department Nordenson first chose as an undergraduate at MIT. He thought about pursuing a career in writing, and to further that ambition he and some college friends founded a literary magazine called Rune.

''We were making a connection between our interest in literature and art and science,'' Nordenson said. ''There were lots of very interesting, eclectic polymaths around who inspired us to assume we could do whatever we wanted to do,'' including Noam Chomsky, a linguistics professor who was a major influence.

In the end Nordenson decided to major in civil engineering at MIT and later enrolled in a master's degree program in structural engineering and structural mechanics at the University of California-Berkeley, which he completed in 1978.

His diverse interests have led him to get involved with the University Center for Human Values, where he is now a faculty associate. Last year he helped organize a conference at the center examining the way that democracy in Iraq would affect the political as well as the physical reconstruction of the country. ''It's an interdisciplinary group of people trying to address questions together,'' Nordenson said. ''I'm getting a lot out of my participation.''

Nordenson also sits on the President's Advisory Committee on Architecture, which makes key decisions and formulates critical policies for the campus, and is involved in a study group on sustainability, which is developing guidelines regarding campus buildings and the environment.

Michael McKay, vice president for facilities and a member of the study group, said, '''Collaborative' is one of the first words I think of when I think of Guy. Our first conversation about the sustainability issue led immediately to the suggestion that we get a group of people together to talk about it.''

Nordenson's embrace of the collaborative process and his ability to convey engineering principles to non-engineers in a way that they can understand makes him unique in his profession.

''A lot of architects get frustrated with engineers because they only see things in terms of numbers, and he isn't like that,'' said Rebecca Nixon, a structural engineer at Nordenson's firm who studied with him at Princeton, where she was a member of the class of 2001. ''He knows how to relate to architects, so when architects have an idea about something, he is able to talk in their terms.''

His approach has made his company one of the most innovative structural engineering firms around. When Nixon began her job search in her senior year, she found that most engineering firms were working on ''standard things like highway bridges, nothing very interesting.'' But Nordenson's firm, she said, ''made me see that there can be a lot of creativity in engineering.''