It’s no surprise that structural engineer Silvian Marcus names Johann Sebastian Bach as his favorite composer, with the latter well known for a complex oeuvre that boggles the mind, from solo keyboard preludes for “The Well Tempered Clavier” to the fully orchestrated “Brandenburg Concertos.” In his famed fugues, the Baroque musician created multiple voices—up to five music staff lines played by one pianist.
When speaking with Marcus about a specific project or about his storied career that led to his selection as ENR New York’s Legacy Award winner for 2021, he will inevitably compare designing and building to music and dance, with all project team members playing their parts.
“I find similarities with engineering in poetry and even music. In general, there’s music in a building—as the weight and wind forces grow from the top down, it’s a sort of crescendo in a classical symphony,” Marcus says. “This music makes a structure work better, exist better, easier to build and gives a better usage—an unwritten poem.”
And when talking about his own oeuvre, the director of building structures for WSP USA goes over a vast, seemingly disparate overview of work.
There’s the slew of super-slender buildings of recent years, most notably the 1,396-ft-tall 432 Park Ave., with its 1:15 slenderness ratio of footprint to height measurements. To prevent it from swaying in a brisk breeze, which could scare or annoy occupants, he says he created “five empty floors” that let wind pass through the building, “like poking holes through a sail,” and also added a 1,300-ton damper on top that acts “like a shock absorber” and reduces the building’s acceleration.
The engineer also has worked on impressive projects beyond New York and New Jersey, including the International Tennis Center in Florida; the Maritime Tower in Dubai; and, in his native Israel, the Grand Canyon Shopping Center in Haifa and the Levinstein Tower in Tel Aviv.
But it’s interesting to see where the structural engineering stalwart, who declines to give his age but notes his American career started after immigrating to the U.S. in 1969, when “we subleased an apartment on W. 66th St. just a block from the Metropolitan Opera.” Marcus soon got a job with a now-defunct firm for $175 a week, and in 1972 joined the Office of Irwin G. Cantor.
The Galleria on 57 Street, on which Marcus was project manager while at that firm—which eventually became the Cantor-Seinuk Group before being acquired by WSP—was the tallest residential building at the time. Notably, from an engineering standpoint, half of its columns were transferred in different locations to facilitate various layouts.
Stewart Rawlings Mott, son of a General Motors co-founder, had planned to live in the Galleria’s 16,000-sq-ft penthouse, where he hoped to grow potatoes and other vegetables as well as raise livestock “and see how they will survive in a tall building,” Marcus recalls. The heir never moved in, but the building, completed in 1976, kicked off 57th Street’s transformation into Billionaires Row.
On the flip side of the residential sector was Marcus’ subsequent big project: the Morrisania Houses, an affordable housing complex in the Bronx comprising three residential towers built over the Harlem Railroad lines that were completed in the 1970s. “That was one of the first articles where my name was mentioned, and they took a picture of me in between the tracks,” Marcus fondly remembers.
While known for his skyscrapers, Marcus also took charge of WSP’s work at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which he says “was the government’s desire to show the world ‘we are there and we are acting,’” and promising that life in the area “will come back.”
Nearby, he also worked on the 7 WTC office high-rise and the former Beekman Tower, now known as 8 Spruce Street, which was designed by Frank Gehry and features an “undulating facade” that looks like ripples flowing down the 76-story residential tower. “It’s extremely dynamic,” he says of the design, and “very sculptural.” But he had to make sure it would be “relatively easy to build” and that those inside would “not be obstructed by walls and columns.”
56 Leonard, the so-called Jenga Building with balconies that jut out, or cantilever, at odd lengths, is similarly sculptural, says Marcus, who was also involved on that project.
This is where Marcus starts comparing engineering with the performing arts. “When I start working with an architect, I look to create the concept of following” that person’s vision, he says, “but in a way that the structure will flow with it. It’s a dance between the architect and the engineer. “The steps have to be the same,” Marcus explains. “If one dancer moves outside the rhythm of the music, the dance won’t work.”
It’s not just project teammates who dance together. At American Copper on E. 35th Street, two buildings connected at mid-height by a suspension bridge look like they’re leaning away at odd angles. Marcus says he figured out a way to “incline the columns—let [them] follow the shape of the building.” That way, “they will dance together instead of going against each other.”
All his talk of performance art and striking presentations makes even more sense after speaking with those who have worked with Marcus.
“He’s my uncle in construction—my sexier, better-dressed uncle,” says Timothy Flynn, senior vice president of design and construction at Rockefeller Group. Flynn worked with Marcus while the former was previously employed by developer Hines on 53 West 53, the condo tower built atop the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) that received ENR New York’s Project of the Year award for 2020.
Flynn explains: “We might be having a big meeting, trying to solve something. Then here comes Sylvian, in a cool leather jacket and sunglasses.” Hezi Mena, a WSP senior vice president, also recalls how they’d arrive “fashionably” late to meetings, and as they entered, “all eyes” would be “focused on Silvian, always dressed well” complete with a pocket handkerchief.
Substance With Style
Still, Mena emphasizes that style never overshadows substance for Marcus. “Whenever Silvian spoke, people went silent and listened,” he says. According to Mena, Marcus “always had an insight about something,” like offering a “holistic approach” to an engineering challenge. No matter the client or the project, Marcus says his goal is to please architects and developers equally.
“They come in with the idea of building aesthetics, maximum usage and a budget,” he says. “The engineer, who is in the shadow of the architect, has to create and make sure that whatever the architectural vision is, it is transformed into reality,” and within the developer’s expected cost, he says—and an engineer is “placed in the middle.”
Marcus manages everyone’s expectations well, mentees and colleagues say. “Silvian’s No. 1 rule is never to say ‘no’ to a client request,” says Mena, adding that Marcus will point out, “We landed a man on the moon, so we can engineer anything.”
Another senior vice president at the firm, Susan Erdelyi Hamos, explains how Marcus achieves these goals.
“To this day, he always requires his engineering staff to develop as many solutions as practically possible,” she says, and then he would assess them all before presenting shortlisted options to clients. Hamos adds that “I have heard, from numerous architects who have worked with Silvian, that … he has never said that any of their design ideas is impossible to implement.”
Ahmad Rahimian, WSP’s executive vice president and USA director of building structures who Marcus hired at Cantor and has worked with him ever since, says the awardee “brings a level of respect and gravitas.” According to Rahimian, “typically, he holds a front seat at the table with the architects and developers while the concepts are taking shape, which creates a true collaborative environment.” Lest that sound staid, Rahimian adds that “one of the pleasures of working with Silvian is that you won’t have a dull moment,” and he praises Marcus’ “quick wit.”
Flynn doesn’t mince words in his praise for Marcus’ engineering prowess. “I consider him one of the most talented structural minds” of the past four or five decades, he says.
Marcus readily shares what’s in and on that mind. In 2016, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, a nonprofit organization that studies how to design more sustainable and healthy cities, asked him to present “The New Supers: Super-Slender Towers of New York” at the group’s annual convention. Rick Rome, WSP president of U.S. property and buildings, recalls that the presentation offered by Marcus “was so popular that it resulted in a standing room only crowd.”
Flynn emphasizes that “the guy’s still at it.” Marcus says his latest work, a 1,000-ft-tall building on Fifth Avenue, is so new that he can’t divulge more. Another new project is 111 W. 57 St., which Marcus explains is 59 ft wide and more than 1,400 ft tall, giving it a slenderness ratio of 1:25, and “I believe a world record” of slimness.
The building is in a photograph he snaps during ENR’s phone interview, part of a spectacular view from Central Park West that shows many of his projects. Within the skyline are 111 W. 57 St., 53 West 53 (the tower atop MoMA) and 432 Park Ave. After taking it in, Marcus says: “It’s a beautiful profession at the end of the day.”