A Shoulder for Buildings to Lean On

Aine M. Brazil at the south tower of Hudson Yards, which will one day be a 900-foot-tall concrete-frame commercial office building. “I’m finding it fun to be involved in,” she says, “because it’s not just about creating the land beneath a development or the structure of a tower, it’s about creating an entire neighborhood.”

Hudson Yards, the 26-acre urban hub rising from obscurity on the Far West Side, some of it on a customized platform deftly suspended above an unlovely rail yard, is the genesis of a vibrant neighborhood and skyline where now there is none. As is usual in her line of work, the input of the structural engineer Aine M. Brazil won’t be visible once the finished product is. She’s the quintessential behind-the-scenes player.

But without envelope-pushing calculations in steel, concrete and physics by Ms. Brazil and her fellow engineers at Thorton Tomasetti, the new Hudson Yards and other high-rise cityscapes, among them three million square feet of development in Times Square, might not exist.

“I make the buildings stand up and stay up,” she said when asked for a reductive description of her far from fragile handiwork. “As an engineer, the last thing you want to hear about is a building falling down, but I don’t think it was until after 9/11 that the average person became aware that it was not an absolute fact that a skyscraper could stand up under any conditions.”

Her job is the ultimate in heavy lifting: Her team at Thornton Tomasetti, where she is a vice chairman, conjured the 37,000-ton platform at Hudson Yards that will support 500,000 tons of construction divided between two towers and a retail podium. The two other towers on the southern fringe of the site will mostly sit on actual terra firma.

“Structural engineering is a tough one,” she said. “People trust you with their buildings, so you can imagine the worries. But contributing to the vision of owners and architects by figuring out how to make their vision real is what makes this job fun. And sometimes it gets painful on the way to being fun.”

By 2018, half of the development, which hugs the final phase of the High Line, will be in business, and Ms. Brazil will have moved on, including projects at Roosevelt Island and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. But she’ll be able to look east across the Hudson River and see Hudson Yards from her home in Hoboken, a bold new West Side horizon made possible by a man-made platform that serves the same purpose as bedrock.

“We’re still in the baby steps of the whole project,” she said. “But I’m finding it fun to be involved in because it’s not just about creating the land beneath a development or the structure of a tower, it’s about creating an entire neighborhood.” On this day, Ms. Brazil, 57, was in her office at 51 Madison Avenue, surrounded by piles of Hudson Yards-themed renderings, blueprints and otherworldly 3-D mock-ups. The phone rang incessantly. Her deadline, she joked, was yesterday.

“As an engineer, you always want to be innovative, but this project demands that you be,” she said. “I do the skeleton, the architect does the skin, and it’s their project,” she said, referring to the developers, the Related Companies and the Oxford Properties Group, which hired the architectural firm Kohn Pedersen Fox to design the master plan. “But it’s my reputation if anything goes wrong. Obviously the first thing we have to do is make it safe. It required some very unusual structural gymnastics.”

L. Jay Cross, the president of Related Hudson Yards, concurred. “I’ve worked with Thornton Tomasetti before on sports facilities, so I knew they were already very good at building very big structures and dealing with big steel,” he said. “But the secret here is in figuring how to build a deck over a working rail yard where you can’t put the support columns where you want them. You have to thread them between the tracks.

“At a certain point in the exercise, there’s a real specialty involved, and you want someone with a lot of experience, and that’s where Aine is coming from. You’re talking about an enormous, enormous load getting distributed in complex ways: She and her team make it happen.”

Mr. Cross said Ms. Brazil’s experience and intellect was coming in handy at Hudson Yards: “Our tendency as developers is that we change our mind about things every week, and we’re always kidding her about that while she’s tearing her hair out trying to make our ideas workable. People don’t tend to think of intellectual firepower when they think of structural engineers, but they should. What we do would be impossible without them.”

The Irish-born Ms. Brazil found her way into the profession 32 years ago, mainly because she was a whiz at math. She was the only woman in her graduating class at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London, from which she received her master’s degree in engineering. She and her husband, John Whelan, a structural engineer at Gace (they occasionally compete for projects, though not for Hudson Yards), moved to New York in 1982 and she almost immediately went to work for Thornton Tomasetti. Since then, the firm has grown to 850 people from 50.

“There was no glass ceiling here,” she said, “and part of my passion is to make sure there never is one. People are always asking how I’ve been able to thrive in such a male-dominated profession. We don’t have children, so I didn’t have to balance family and career, but I’m very aware of my co-workers who do need to.”

Ms. Brazil and her team were tapped almost a decade ago to begin devising the complicated platform, which relies on strategically placed 50- to 70-foot caissons and 50-by-150-foot steel trusses. She is also a lead engineer for 10 Hudson Yards, an under-construction 180,000-ton concrete high-rise whose anchor tenant is Coach, the leather goods company. She says it is the city’s first all-concrete commercial skyscraper. “At first everyone was resistant to using concrete,” she said. “But as it turned out, Coach loved the idea of having loft-like interiors that exposed some of the structural elements.”

Besides 10 million square feet earmarked for commercial towers, the finished development will contain 14 acres of public plazas and parkland, residential units, a hotel, a school and more than a million square feet of retail space, all of it a heavy load for a web of steel beams and concrete pylons to partially (and invisibly) support. “If nobody mentions it ever again, it means we’ve done our work correctly,” she said.

While Hudson Yards is her most challenging project to date, Ms. Brazil has often tweaked the city’s skyline. The firm provided the structural design for One Beacon Court, a k a the Bloomberg Tower at East 58th Street and Lexington Avenue. She was the lead engineer when NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital needed a 485-foot-platform to bridge Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive and bear the weight of a 12-story extension. Her firm handled the structural design for the rehabilitation of the Roosevelt Island aerial tramway and the 71st Street pedestrian bridge above the F.D.R.

On a slightly more whimsical note, she worked on the novel structural design for West57, the 709-unit residential/retail tower at 625 West 57th Street that is the first New York project by the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels and his Bjarke Ingels Group. The apartments will be rentals, with some designated for low-income residents, and the sustainable design blends a European low-rise courtyard-focused vibe with the classic aspirational New York skyscraper. Ms. Brazil is excited about it, but she and the architect take issue with its unofficial nickname, the Pyramid Building. “It’s not a pyramid. A pyramid is symmetrical, flat-sided and comes to a point. This does not have any flat sides; if anything, it’s a hexahedron.

“It’s a swooping surface that reaches up to a peak,” she said. “It’s all sloping wall and balconies and almost no roof, and it was so inventive to put something like that out there, that you also have to ask the question, ‘Is it advisable to do this?’ We had to find a way of getting all of these little balconies integrated and make a design in a very nontraditional form as close to the traditional method of building a residential building as possible. There is a complex geometry going on.”

West57 is being developed by Durst Fetner Residential; Ms. Brazil felt it crucial that the developer was willing “to embrace the architect’s experiment. The partnerships that form in the process of figuring out these projects are what make it all worth it.”

As for her role in expanding the built landscape, Ms. Brazil said, “The fact is, people want to live and work in this city. High-rise living is here to stay, and I see nothing wrong in that, providing it doesn’t destroy what goes on at street level. New York City has to be a modern city, at street level and at sky level.”

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