When prompted Ramon Gilsanz (Madrid, 1954) how he became one of engineers of the most prestigious structures New YorkHe attributes his success to the long list of friends who helped him on his journey from the Chamberí neighborhood of Madrid to the tallest skyscrapers in Manhattan.
“If you are lucky, it is very difficult to give importance to yourself,” he says in an online conversation from his home in the Greenwich Village neighborhood, where he has lived with his partner for 15 years, the architect. Mariko Takahashi. Despite being little known in Spain, he has been implementing the ideas of the world’s most influential architects for more than three decades. He has worked with a dozen Pritzker awards, such as Richard Meier, Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas or Frank Gehry. And it provides a solution to the riskiest installations at the Guggenheim Museum’s Fifth Avenue exhibits.
His relationship with the city of skyscrapers is so intense that his intervention was fundamental in the analysis of the collapse of the World Trade Center after the terrorist attack of 11-S, who was 19 yesterday, and is the chair of the New York City Department of Buildings Structural Engineering Committee, which sets construction standards.
He presents his immense resume with an outburst of modesty, a very infectious laugh, and that vital attitude that is so prized in the Big Apple. “What a structural engineer does is take a model for buildings to stand upright. The simpler it is, the better the construction, ”he explains. His calculations support sinuous facades such as that of the condominium of Zaha Hadid on the New York High Line, dizzying heights like Cepsa Tower Norman Foster in Madrid or renovations of emblematic buildings such as the Empire State or the Woolworth.
In the Cepsa Tower he worked with his friend Robert Halvorson, who was one of its leaders and, However, mentors. He fired him and encouraged him to start his own company. And then he invited him to collaborate on various projects.
“These people see more than I do,” he comments on his relationship with famous architects. And he takes as an example the surprise that Jean Nouvel gave him when they worked on the glass and steel structure that covers Jane’s Carousel, the historic 1922 carousel located in Dumbo, next to the Brooklyn Bridge. The French came up with the idea of installing white curtains so that the horses stick out like a Chinese lantern. “In the end it wasn’t done, but it was a great idea that would never have occurred to me,” he says.
Gilsanz was born in Madrid into a family of five where education, competition and commitment were encouraged. He studied at the British College of Chamberí. But they changed it into a Catholic institution to tame a rebellious character who was nothing but restlessness. He studied engineering at the Madrid Polytechnic in full transition. During this time she met a group of librarian friends who taught her that there is more to life than calculations and her first ally, Enrique Alarcon, academic by number and former president of the Royal Academy of Engineering.
Thanks to him, she traveled to South Africa and later to Japan to work in a liquid container company. In remembering Alarcón, Gilsanz lacks the mentor figure who helped him so much in the United States and who is so difficult to find in Spain. “The mentor gives you the confidence so you can explore things on your own.” Try to do the same in his company.
From Asia he made the leap to the United States. It was 1979 and his brother took him to the door of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston. “Come in and ask,” he said. He did it. After three years of studies and two and a half years of work in the city, one day she read an advertisement The New York Times who said: “We need a structural engineer with experience in tall buildings and who can program.”
This is how he moved to New York in 1984 and started working at the construction giant WSP – responsible for 432 Park Avenue in New York, from the Uruguayan Rafael Viñoly, or the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, among a long list of skyscrapers and other infrastructure projects around the world – then move on to SOM, which marks the development of the western part of Manhattan or the skyscraper of number 35 from Hudson Yards among dozens of towers and urban projects from Beijing to San Francisco.
SOM’s office was located in the emblematic building of the Daily News on 42nd Street. It was there that one day, walking out of the revolving door, he realized that he had become a structural engineer. And that it would be for life. But what fascinated him most about working in Manhattan was not the ability to build skyscrapers, but the people who live behind each of the lighted windows. “Everyone talks about the buildings, the work, the museums, but what matters here are the people”, he pontificated. Since there is no American success story without difficulty, he was soon caught up in the savings and lending crisis of the 1980s, prompted by Ronald Reagan’s banking deregulation.
The company closes the Structures department. They offered him an impossible transfer to Chicago or London for his first wife, the designer Deborah Glasserman, a fervent New Yorker, with whom he has been married for a year and shares two daughters, Emma and Daniela. So it was that in 1988, encouraged by the boss who fired him, he met his collaborators Phil Murray is Gary Steficek in an Italian restaurant on 46th Street, and they decided to found the Gilsanz Murray Steficek company. From the beginning, they accepted all kinds of commissions. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a tall, low, new or old building, the important thing is the challenge,” he says. They worked from the Porcelanosa headquarters in New York up to the aforementioned renovation of the Empire State Building.
A stroke of luck led them to obtain the renovation of the Guggenheim Museum in Soho in 1991, together with the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki. Since then the company has made riskier installations in the museum such as that of the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang in 2008, for which nine cars were hung inside the spiral roundabout designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
All thanks to the entry into the company of the architect Joseph T. Blanchfield, “a great technician” who contributed his knowledge in facades, enclosures and water protection to open a department that was instrumental in entering the big name market. “Many of the architects were good designers, but not technicians”, he explains, so their integration to unite these two worlds “was fundamental”.
Gilsanz can be seen in the morning reviewing a construction site in a luxury condominium on Fifth Avenue and in the afternoon visit the Rescue Mission shelter in Lower Manhattan to study a dormitory expansion for the homeless. It is no stranger to the “tremendous” contrast that is New York. Nor to the difficulties that the city is going through due to the pandemic, but it applies, once again, its positive perspective. “I have no doubt that it will continue to grow. There will be changes. Readjustments. Space considerations. Especially in the offices. But social interaction will not be lost ”, sentence. And buildings are like friends, you have to take care of them.
This is one of the people who knows the consequences of September 11, 2001 very well. That sunny morning, Gilsanz witnessed the impact of planes on the Twin Towers. He lived through the tragedy with his structural engineer mind. “He did the calculations, two buildings, 400,000 square meters each, thousands of people. I understood what would happen. It was shocking, ”he explains in a voice filled with emotion.
The next day, he went to Ground Zero with the heads of the New York Department of Buildings to analyze the extent of the damage. “We all knew each other over there. It was like a city, “he recalls. As the city was not enough, he left his office, then located nearby, between 11th and 12th streets, as the operations center for volunteer engineers who helped with the cleanup work to avoid further “I never had to give instructions, people got organized,” he says. It was open 24/7. Engineers came, were assigned to a group, and sent to the scene of the disaster.
After a month, control of the works passed to the Thorton-Tomasetti company. Gilsanz immersed himself in the federal investigation conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to analyze why the buildings collapsed. He chose to investigate Building 7 for two reasons. Because there were no deaths: it collapsed from the impact of the fire created by the rubble of the towers when the area was already cleared. And because he had worked on it years before.
The 9/11 tragedy helped him accomplish something that became clear again with covid-19. “Not all deaths are the same,” not all impact society in the same way. “It is assumed that buildings don’t fall,” he says. Traffic accidents, plane crashes and even pandemics are accepted, but when it comes to construction, we are still in the Hammurabi Code of ancient Mesopotamia, where the builder paid for a death by collapse with his life.
“They resisted the impact, what they could not resist was the fire”, he concludes without giving room to conspiracy theories. Three years later, he was named chairman of the New York City Department of Buildings Structural Technical Committee, from where he spearheaded the passage of new building codes with advances in engineering to make New York the city with the strongest buildings. in the world. “I hope we don’t have to try it,” he says.