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Matthys Levy, P.E.
Structural Engineer

Who Builds Big? | Career Info Index | Engineering Webography

Matthys Levy has been designing domes, buildings, and bridges for almost 50 years. His projects include the Georgia Dome Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia; the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City; and La Plata Stadium in Argentina. He is the author of several books, including Why Buildings Fall Down (1992) with Mario Salvadori, and Engineering the City: The Story of Infrastructure (2000) with Richard Panchyk. He is a principal with Weidlinger Associates, a structural and civil engineering firm.

Check out a structure that Matthys designed: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Georgia

Matthys Levy, Structural Engineer
(click for larger image)

So what do you do as a structural engineer?
I design buildings and bridges, all kinds of buildings, from long-span buildings, like stadiums, to tall buildings, high-rise buildings, skyscrapers, to even houses.

Matthys Levy, Structural Engineer
(click for larger image)

And what are some projects that you're working on right now?
I have a stadium that is just starting construction in Argentina. It's a very large stadium. It's for football -- or what they call football there, which is soccer. And it seats about 50,000 people and is actually, in terms of size, about the same size as the Georgia Dome, which was also one of my projects. It has kind of an unusual cable roof that I designed.

What makes the Georgia Dome unique? What makes it special as a dome?
The two things I think that stand out about the Georgia Dome: one, it's very large. It's almost 800 feet long and almost 700 feet wide. The plan is kind of an ellipse -- not a pure ellipse but a type of ellipse. And it has a unique cable roof, which we call a tensegrity roof, because it's a mixture of cable elements and rigid posts, very much like an umbrella. If you think of an umbrella, an umbrella has some rigid elements and very soft elements. Then it has fabric, which serves as a surface of the roof. And the fabric is translucent so that the whole roof appears to be part of the sky. You can't look through it, but you get light coming through it. And it's extremely light for that span. It weighs only about five or six pounds per square foot, where most roofs of that size would weigh at least four to five times as much.

Is it the design itself that gives it its strength?
Yes, it's a very unique design that gives it its strength. The cables are arranged in such a way that they actually pull against the posts, so you have -- like a drum -- a very tight roof.

What's a typical workday like for you?
Well, let me tell you some of the tasks that I have to deal with, apart from answering the phone and dealing with issues of administration. From a design point of view, what I deal with is to try to organize the other designers who are working on a project, give them tasks that they have to carry out, numerical calculations that they have to make, and drawings that they have to prepare.

And then I meet with the other members of the design team -- the architects, the mechanical engineers, who provide the air conditioning, ventilation, lighting, and plumbing -- and we try to coordinate our tasks so that the building contains all of these elements in the right place and they don't interfere with each other.

And then I, of course, spend part of my day trying to get new work for the office, because the work is not given to you; you have to go out and get it. You have to spend a certain amount of time getting that work. And that pretty much covers the kinds of things that I'm involved with.

How do you use science, math, and technology in your work?
Math and physics are really the keys to engineering, especially engineering structures, because physics tells you how structures behave when you push against them, when you pull against them, and how they will react in the wind and under earthquakes and under the load of occupants. Mathematics is the tool that you use to calculate the physical effects. So you use both mathematics and the physical sciences.

Let me ask you, what do you like most about being an engineer, and what do you like least about your work?
On a positive side, I love to design. I love to create designs and to see them carried out and also have them so well detailed that when I go out and see them in real life, they look exactly the way I imagined they would. That's very exciting.

Really, what I like least, in a way, is the effort you have to make to get work and the fact that you are competing against other people who, in your mind, are a little less talented than you are.

What goes into designing for you?
What are the steps involved?

To start a design off, obviously there has to be a place, so you have a site where it will actually be built. And you have to know something about that site, especially what kind of soils exist below the surface of the site. So you have to have probes made, which are essentially holes that are dug in the ground that will tell you what kind of materials exist at what levels below the ground and also where the water level exists below the ground level, and if you hit rock, where the rock is. So that is something about the site itself.

You also have to know something about the environment of the site -- that is, is it subject to earthquakes? tornadoes? hurricanes? All of these extreme cases become cases of loads that are going to act on the building that you want to put on that site. So load determination is one of the early tasks that you have to carry out. And the loads are specified by regulation, which are mostly the loads of the occupants and what is actually going to be placed within the space -- tables, chairs, bookshelves, storage cabinets, whatever -- hence, the loads of the structure itself. So you have to calculate what the weight of all of these parts is, and you have to calculate what the forces are that all of these external effects are going to impose on the structure -- the earthquake, the wind, etc.

Once you know these, then the next step is to decide how you're going to build the structure and what material you're going to use -- concrete, steel, wood. And that depends very much on where you're building it and how big it is and what its function is. Then once you know the material that you're going to use, you can begin to lay out the building, which the architect usually does and you help him with, and you lay out points where you will provide supports.

And then you can begin to lay out the orientation of the structure -- what the structure is going to look like. Once you know that, then you begin to calculate how big each of the members that constitutes that structure has to be.

Do you have a favorite kind of structure that you like to design?
No. I love to do something I haven't done before. That's really fun. I did the new planetarium in New York, which is a very unusual structure. It's a sphere that's supported on three legs, and it's enclosed by a glass box, so it's a totally unusual structure. That was a lot of fun.

What's the most interesting project you've worked on?
It's always the last one. There have been really so many that I consider interesting. I've done some really fun high-rise buildings in Atlanta in concrete -- unusual configurations, different shapes, not the ordinary straight up-and-down tower. The Rose Center (the new planetarium) was really interesting. The Whitney Museum, which I did with Marcel Breuer, a very famous architect, was really interesting.

A small pedestrian bridge I just did for the Rockefeller University -- it's an interesting design because it's a cable-stayed bridge, where there are cables that support it. And the arrangement of the tower and the whole look of the bridge is really quite exciting. That's just been finished. It just opened.

So when did you know you wanted to be an engineer?
Well, when I was young, I loved to draw, and I also loved to imagine places to live. So I used to make drawings of plans of houses -- you know, what kind of house I'd like to live in. I read a lot of architectural magazines. And when I started in school, I was reasonably good in science and math -- not brilliant, but good enough. So as I went along, I sort of decided that the technical side was really quite interesting, and I got more and more involved in the technical end of it. And even though I kept looking forward to maybe eventually becoming an architect, I decided that first I wanted to know all about engineering. And the more I got into it, the more I stayed there.

What kept you there?
Fascinating projects.

Did you major in structural engineering?

You're a very senior engineer; you've had a lot of experience. How long have you been in your field?
Well, close to 50 years.

That's very impressive. What advice would you have for younger people who see what you're doing and are interested in doing that kind of work?
Primarily that they have to hone their basic skills, which are the skills in mathematics and physics. And then also read a lot. Especially read about what other people are doing in architecture and structures. And there are lots of magazines around that will provide that information in a simple format, so that between those two things, I think one can really begin to understand what the profession is all about and begin to know who the people are in the profession who are doing things that you would like to get involved with. Those are the people you eventually want to meet.

Let me ask you finally, what kinds of things do you like to do in your free time?
I'm writing books, all kinds of books, which should be in your library. [laughs] I'm writing about engineering and science both, because the books are both about engineering, about architecture, and about science, about earthquakes, volcanoes; now we're doing one on wind. And a book coming out this fall for kids is on infrastructure.

Why have you pursued writing in addition to your engineering work?
First, I enjoy it. And I think I'm pretty good at it, especially in the sense that I can put into words visual images and make them come alive.

And you've chosen to focus at least in part on writing for kids.
Yes, because I think there's not enough literature out there that is written on what I think is a level for kids that is right for them. Most of the things that are written for kids seem to be written down to the kids. And I think you should actually challenge them somewhat in making them read something that they have to think about, that's not completely given to them, spoon-fed. I think that's why I like to do that.