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April 24, 2012

Helmut Krawinkler, expert on structural design and earthquake engineering, dies at 72

Krawinkler was widely respected around the world and recognized for extraordinary and lasting contributions to earthquake safety. He fundamentally changed the process of evaluating seismic safety and damage potential.

By Andrew Myers

Helmut Krawinkler, professor emeritus in civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and a leading expert in structural design and earthquake engineering, died at his home in Los Altos, California, on April 16. Krawinkler had undergone surgery for a brain tumor in recent months and died suddenly while undergoing follow-up treatment. He was 72.

Prior to his retirement he was the John A. Blume Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, a position he assumed in 1991. From 1985 to 1995, he was co-director of the John A. Blume Earthquake Engineering Center at Stanford. And, from its creation in 1988 until 1998, Krawinkler was director of the joint Stanford/USGS Institute for Earthquake Engineering and Seismology.

"We were co-directors of the Blume Center. He would always consult with me for every decision regarding center activities. It was a true partnership even though he was more senior,” said Anne Kiremidjian, a fellow professor and longtime friend of Krawinkler. “His passion for research was infectious, his stamina for work unsurpassed by any of us and his love of life refreshing.”

“While Helmut has been a senior member of our faculty group for many years, he was also the most young at heart, who enjoyed lively conversations and the company of friends, colleagues and students,” said Greg Deierlein, the current John A. Blume Professor at Stanford.

As a faculty adviser, Krawinkler could be demanding, but devoted. On the afternoon prior to his brain surgery in February, he made a heroic effort to participate in the dissertation defense of one of his students. In all, he guided 28 doctoral candidates to their PhDs. He was an author on 296 published papers.

“He would spend hours talking to his students and his office was always full of people - students, faculty, visitors,” said Kiremidjian.

"Professor Krawinkler was a patient adviser, a supportive mentor, a caring father-figure, and a close friend. He devoted his life to us, his students, launched our careers, and continued to support us every step of the way. We treasure our memories with him in meetings, gatherings, and conversations. We miss him dearly," said Farzin Zareian, a former student of Krawinkler's and now an assistant professor at the University of California - Irvine.

"He exercised tough and demanding professional standards and yet he was warm and fun to be with. His students over the years formed a Helmut alumni society. He had a profound impact on our professional and personal lives. He became a close and admired friend to many of us," said Piotr Moncarz, a former student and now consulting professor at Stanford.

Consummate professional

Krawinkler was widely respected around the world for his insights and accomplishments in structural design and earthquake engineering.  Just this month, he was recognized by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) with its George W. Housner Medal, the most prestigious award of the Institute, granted only by unanimous vote of its Board of Directors. The medal committee recognized Krawinkler for his “extraordinary and lasting contributions to earthquake safety” and noted he had “fundamentally changed” the process of evaluating seismic safety and damage potential.

Early in his career, Krawinkler made important contributions to our knowledge on how connections between beams and columns in steel buildings behave during earthquakes, said Eduardo Miranda, a professor in civil and environmental engineering, and a friend and colleague. More recently, he became globally known for his support of performance-based earthquake engineering.

In February, Krawinkler was elected to the National Academy of Engineers. The Academy honored him for developing performance-based earthquake engineering procedures for evaluating and rehabilitating buildings. Election to the National Academy of Engineering is among the highest professional distinctions accorded to an engineer.

Champion of new ideas

Krawinkler was known to advocate new ideas well ahead of their time. Sometimes those ideas were misunderstood or unpopular at first, but eventually they came to be embraced by the profession.  In 1996, Helmut wrote an article to explain “pushover analysis,” an emerging nonlinear evaluation technique. A few years later, it was a mainstay in earthquake engineering.

And yet, even in support of the idea, Krawinkler was circumspect. He understood that in time pushover analysis was only an interim measure, destined to be replaced by more sophisticated types of analysis.

“He wrote in depth in that same article about when not to use it, as well as when and how to use it,” said Deierlein. “And, in 2005 or so, when engineering moved on to more advanced methods, Krawinkler was, as usual, proved right.”

Krawinkler's expertise was known abroad and close to home. In 1995, after the Kobe earthquake in Japan, he served on an international evaluation team looking into the lessons of that disaster. Following the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 that was centered in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Krawinkler led a team of 50-60 inspectors through a thorough evaluation of Stanford buildings and later, in concert with the U.S. Geological Survey, he organized a free public lecture, “In the Wake of the Quake,” held at Stanford Memorial Auditorium.

At the time, Krawinkler went on record to say that he thought the damage and amount of casualties would have been much greater had the earthquake occurred in any other part of the world, but that much of the damage could have been minimized or avoided nonetheless.

"It is too bad that we have to spend $5 to $10 billion to clean up the mess rather than prevent it," Krawinkler was quoted as saying, "but if there is one thing we should learn, it is to practice a little preventative medicine.”

Ironically, Krawinkler was in the Blume Earthquake Engineering Center in Building 540 on the Stanford campus when the earthquake hit. Building 540 was then an eight-decade-old structure of unreinforced masonry, a substandard structure by any measure. In 1994, the university commenced a three-year seismic strengthening project and today the building still houses the Blume Center, albeit with much-reduced earthquake risk.

Krawinkler was a founding member of the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center (PEER), which seeks to reduce earthquake hazards in large urban areas in active earthquake regions, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. The center was founded in the wake of the 1994 Northridge, California, and 1995 Kobe, Japan, earthquakes, which caused $30 billion and $150 billion in damage, respectively.

Of the risks of sub-standard structures, Krawinkler cautioned, "society is not facing up to the problem sufficiently.” At the time he was studying the problem with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

With Prof. Peter Fafjar, at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, Krawinkler co-organized a series of workshops in 1992, 1997 and 2004 that are today regarded as some of the most influential workshops in the field of performance-based earthquake engineering.

Krawlinker also co-founded a private structural engineering firm, but returned to academia full time after the 1994 Northridge quake.

“Helmut was interested in the nuts and bolts (and welds) of how to implement theory in practice.  Our structural design firm helped design such notable projects as the Aspen Concert Hall and Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel,” said Greg Luth, Krawinkler’s partner in the structural engineering firm, Krawinkler, Luth & Associates.


Krawinkler was born 6 April 1940, in Innsbruck, Austria. “Though Helmut emigrated to the U.S. about forty years ago, he always maintained his beloved Austrian roots—returning home each summer to renew friendships and spend time on contemplative hikes with his silent childhood friends, the Alpine cows,” said Deierlein.

Like many Austrians, Krawinkler loved to ski and was skilled at it, too. “Until his surgery this past year, he never missed our annual ski trip and the opportunity to seek out able-bodied graduate students to race him down the black-diamond trails,” remembered Deierlein.

Krawinkler graduated with a degree in civil engineering from the Technical University of Vienna in 1964. From 1965 to 1967, he studied under a Fulbright Fellowship before enrolling at California State University, San Jose, to pursue his master's degree in structural engineering. He earned his doctorate from Berkeley in 1971, and served as assistant research engineer there from 1971-1972 and as lecturer at San Jose State from 1972-73. He became an assistant professor at Stanford in 1973 where he served on the faculty until his retirement in 2007.

"Retirement, though, was not quite the right word for it,” said Steve Monismith, chair of Stanford’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “Helmut was tireless. He stayed active in teaching, research and professional practice until his death.”

“It is really difficult to say good-bye to such a dear friend. He will be missed by all of us who were so privileged to know him. He will remain in our hearts and minds forever,” said Kiremidjian.

Krawinkler is survived by his wife, Michele, of Los Altos, Calif.; son, Marcus, and daughter-in-law Julie; two grandchildren Alexander and Emily;  a sister, Gretel, and a brother-in-law, Otto; a niece, Angie, and many cousins throughout Austria

A memorial service is planned for later in the spring.



Andrew Myers, School of Engineering, (650) 736-2245, [email protected]


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