Atinuke Adeniji reports on meeting Kamran Moazami and Ron Slade from WSP
Kamran Moazami is the man behind some of the most famous high-rise buildings in the world. The WSP director spoke about leaving Iran, taking on Manhattan and helping the British learn to love the skyscraper. He delved in to the patents WSP had accrued and the reasons behind the construction of the magnificent building we know today as The Shard. His counterpart, the design genius Ron Slade, spoke about the transfigurations that have happened in London over the years and the important elements that make a leader.
WSP is a world leading engineering and design consultancy, they provide services to transform the built environment of today and tomorrow. Both structural engineers – Kamran Moazami and Ron Slade are the brains behind this firm and the 27th of February 2014, 11 lucky students including myself were able to tap into the knowledge of these engineering experts.
Introducing the interview briefly was Kamran giving a brief presentation about WSP and the works that they had done. With buildings like Manchester Hilton, Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Two, Three & Seven World Trade centers, the works that the firm had been involved in sparked the interest of everyone in the room. The Cheese Grater, Jubilee Bridge and even Blackfrairs were all WSP projects. WSP have definitely made some iconic buildings and structures that are sure to be seen in the skylines of countries like the USA and UK for years to come.
When asked by one of the interviewers why they chose structural engineering as a profession, they both responded with quite different answers.
Ron spoke about how his late father was a carpenter and that had always sparked his interest in doing something along those lines. He spoke about being unsure of his choices right up to the university level and put minds of people like myself aiming to go into STEM at rest when he said “engineering is an art of the practical. There is always practical stuff to do which leaves wide open a window of opportunity for many things. Don’t stress, calm down and the right profession or career path will come to you.” Kamran however said STEM had actually never crossed his mind. He further went to say that he in fact wanted to be a doctor but his father had discouraged him. He told me “you know what just think of yourself as a doctor for buildings and you’ll be good to go” Kamran said. It seems his father’s advice paid off as he said engineering was just so rewarding and he was so thankful he had listened to his father. He spoke about how rewarding it is to have the building you constructed right there in the skyline of a city and being able to say to your children’s children ‘I did that’. An intriguing individual with a cheerful smile, Moazami comes across as a refined and educated man with a great flair for urban life and buildings. He is also a champion in his profession and talks earnestly about the lengths to which his firm goes to train graduates and motivate them about the rewards of a career in STEM, particularly engineering.
When questioned about the challenges they both faced while designing and constructing The Shard, both Mr Moazami and Mr Slade had plenty to say. Ron spoke about how The Shard was quite a challenge to design and structure since it was such a horizontally tall building. He spoke about trying to fulfil the architect – Renzo Piano’s – wishes of creating a vertical city while still creating something that would be accessible to all the residents, business owners and companies. He stressed how difficult it was to try and create a structure that would make all its users interlink yet not disturb them. He further went on to say that after sketching some design pieces he was still unsure because “there was something missing from it”. Kamran chipped in to say that every building must have something iconic like a ‘hat’. He compared the structure of a building to getting dressed in the morning and said ‘if I have boring jeans on and a shirt, if I add a hat, its transforms the whole outfit! That’s exactly what is needed in a building - a hat.”
“I had to change a lot of my design as you can see, which is why I believe that the best way to communicate your ideas is through pencil - you can just rub out and try a different idea. Perhaps it’s just the generation I was born in but all that tech stuff is just not for me.” Ron joked while showing some of his sketches in his sketchbook.
Mr Moazami went on to say that making the building sustainable and using the minimum amount of material to get the maximum potential was vital; a skill which will be needed for youngsters like me aiming to go on with the work of STEM. Using this skill means that the environment is protected in the doing of your work and it also means that you can aptly scavenge for resources, be it in the work place, school or general life.
Both engineers went on to say that getting the optimum resources and following the strict orders of Renzo (the architect) was key. They had to make sure they could sequence construction with the contractor. In planning such a challenging building construction wise – they had to think of things way ahead of time. Events like the 9/11 disaster made sure that threat assessments and major risk assessments are being evaluated for buildings now and WSP was one of the first companies to look at risk assessments straight after the 9/11 occurrence. “The Barclays Bank Headquarters was really a very special building for me post–9/11. So 9/11 happened and the next day Barclays said that they didn’t want to be in a tall building. So we studied the building and worked on the structure and how to reinforce the building without creating a fort.
“That job really changed how we looked at buildings. You can put a large-diameter hole through that building and it won’t come down.” He went on to say, “A lot of it is not about engineering, it’s about intuition and instinct... When I look at a job I could easily say what will make it work without running any numbers or calculations because I’ve done it so many times that it gives me that intuition. That’s what gives Americans the edge on tall buildings.”
The English historic distaste for high rise buildings also creates a challenge for architects and engineers: if they’re going to stand a chance of winning planning permission, they have to be good - very good. And it is clear that this is key to Moazami’s passion for working in the UK, and in London in particular.
“The Shard is probably the best building in the world,” he says. “And in a sense, London demands exceptional projects and unique projects. That’s something that attracted me to here. I didn’t want to do boring square buildings in New York. I knew that I would be able to have the chance of work with amazing architects and do work that is phenomenal.” Moazami clearly believes that the British are coming round to tall buildings – partly due to the realisation that, if successful global cities are to continue to grow, there is only one way to go – up.“Cities like London, Paris and New York – these are the cities where people want to live,” he says.
When asked for any advice for youngsters aiming to go into engineering, both interviewees spoke about the significance of developing team work skills: there will be times when you need to work on your own, but often it is more about coming together with different engineers to make a whole design. Kamran spoke saying he was actually afraid of heights so when he had to oversee something with a substantial height, he would often have to call one of the team to do it and trust their judgement. While Ron spoke about Moazami’s great leadership, Kamran insisted that none of WSP greatness was down to him, it was down to all the workers and consultants and engineers in collaboration. “I merely just make a judgement from experience in most cases” Kamran said. “My greatest joy is to work with guys like yourselves” the engineering mastermind spoke. While praising efforts of the interviewers Mr Moazami spoke about being passionate and encouraging us to be passionate about whatever career path we eventually take.
Mr Slade and Mr Moazami really encouraged us when we spoke about what it takes to be a leader and achieving your utmost in a career. Ron gave advice saying ‘take note of the world around you’ and telling us to be enthusiastic about whatever we do. Enthusiasm and passion is what will make you choose the right profession for you. Mr Slade quoted “if you wanna do it then you can do it. No questions asked.” This really gave me a confidence boost as a girl from a racial minority trying to go into STEM. Both engineers, particularly Kamran, stressed the importance of doing something because you love it and not worrying what others will say, do or think.
Ron talked about aiming high and seeking knowledge. He reassured us saying “engineering is pretty cool. There is a lot to do with it. And if you love it, go do it. If you have questions, never shy away from asking.” Kamran spoke about the components of a leader and affirmed that it wasn’t going to be easy but at the end of the day, the result of whatever you produce will be worth it. “It’s taxing and you have to be enduring but if you want to be a leader you have to be a people person. You need to be flexible. “
There was plenty to be impressed about in the interview with these two men who together with their firm have constructed some of the most iconic buildings in the world. I found plenty to inspire me in Kamran Moazami’s own back catalogue – for which he was awarded the International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering’s Milne Medal and all their reassuring advice, has put me in the know as to what a career in STEM would be like. Most of what they said given confidence to my choices and removed any doubts I had concerning a job in engineering and as Ron advised, I am going to go for it ‘because I wanna’.
This article was written by Atinuke Adeniji, a year 9 student from Walthamstow School for Girls, Church Hill Walthamstow.