Retirement Dinner to Honor Professor Christian Meyer

Nov 01 2014

A retirement event is organized on May 26, 2014 to honor Professor Christian Meyer, with a Dinner Harbor Cruise aboard the Rendezvous of the World Yacht Cruise Line. It is an opportunity for faculty, staff, alumni, family and friends of Prof. Christian Meyer to congratulate him on his retirement after 36 years of career at Columbia University, and also to recognize his service to the Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics and the Columbia University community. Department Chair George Deodatis acts as the host of the event and the evening includes remarks by Prof. Emeritus Frank DiMaggio, Peter and Günter Meyer, and other attendees. Prof. Meyer is presented with a plaque from the Department for his dedication and service to the university.

Professor Christian Meyer
Professor Christian Meyers


The biography of Professor Christian Meyer is given as follows, which was based on the speech given by Professor George Deodatis:

Professor Christian Meyer was born in 1943 in Magdeburg, Germany, in central Northern Germany, which later became part of East Germany. At the end of 1948, the family fled to West Germany and settled in Hannover, where he attended 4 years of elementary school. In 1953, the family moved to Bonn, then the provisional capital of West Germany, where he attended the Gymnasium for nine years and graduated with the Abitur. Originally, he wanted to become an architect, but a family friend advised him to study civil engineering first. So in 1962, Christian spent the then-mandatory six months as an apprentice in construction and then enrolled in the Technical University of Berlin. After 5 semesters of study, he received the “Vordiplom” degree, something of a half-way mark towards the Diploma in civil engineering.

At that time, the West Germany federal student aid program called “Honnefer Modell” offered support for one year of study abroad. Although the administrators had in mind countries like France or Great Britain, not the US with the exorbitant tuitions, they grudgingly allowed him to study in the US, where two of his brothers were already studying at UCLA. Christian was familiar with the reputation of UC Berkeley and went there instead, where to his surprise  his advisor, Professor Ray Clough, thought the Vordiplom was equivalent to the American BS degree and was confident that Christian could earn an MS degree in that one year (“You just have to work a little harder” he said). And Christian did it! Not only that – before the year was over, he got married. He met Hwa Soon, a MA student in musicology with an undergraduate degree in piano from Seoul National University, in Berkeley’s International House.

As his thesis advisor, he selected Professor Alex Scordelis, who gave him the choice: “You can work on a thin concrete shell project for which I have no funding. Or you can work on the analysis of curved box girder bridges for which I have good funding. Which one do you prefer?” The choice was not difficult. For his thesis he wrote two computer programs: one based on thin shell theory and since Ed Wilson’s famous SAP was still under development, Christian wrote his own general-purpose finite element program. The sponsor, CalTrans, used these programs for over 20 years. These were great times at UC-Berkeley with giants like Ray Clough, Ed Wilson, Joe Penzien, TY Lin, Egor Popov, Vic Bertero, Karl Pister, Boris Bresler, Bob Taylor, Jim Kelly, and the Columbians Jerry Sackman, Hugh McNiven and Jake Lubliner. This collection of brain power did not get lost on the student from Berlin. For example, he attended the first course on finite elements (taught by Ray Clough) anywhere, both as a student and as Teaching Assistant. In 5 years, he earned both the MS and PhD degrees, with Alex Scordelis being a very stern and demanding mentor.

In his mind, Christian never forgot his goal of an academic career, but being of the old-fashioned school, he decided he needed to practice first before preaching. That’s why, after graduation, he joined the firm of AC Martin in Los Angeles, whose main business was the design of tall buildings. And that’s what he did for almost 3 years. The business side of it did not suffer by the fact that on his second day on the job, on February 9, 1971, Southern California was hit by the San Fernando earthquake. The major clients were insurance companies that owned hundreds of properties in the LA area and benefitted from the fact that the Berkeley graduate improved one of the Berkeley programs to be suitable to analyze “real” buildings. After 3 years, it was time to move on and the family settled in Boston, where he joined the Stone & Webster Engineering Corporation, whose main business was the design and construction of nuclear power plants. But, alas, it was the wrong time. When the Arab oil embargo hit the country, everybody predicted that this was the time to go nuclear. Unfortunately, the opposite came to pass, for various reasons, mostly financial. The nuclear industry limped on until the Three Mile Island accident that practically killed it. Still, Christian spent some 18 months on very elaborate nonlinear analyses of a prestressed concrete reactor vessel for a gas-cooled reactor, which was never built.

Then, in 1978, it was time to start the long-delayed academic career and he gladly accepted an offer from Columbia University’s Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics. His main research efforts were originally centered on the analysis of concrete structures subjected to severe earthquakes. But after having developed with his students very complex models of concrete members, he realized that these models were almost exclusively of empirical nature which was not as intellectually challenging as building models based on basic material properties and principles of mechanics. Thus he became interested in concrete material science and which drew his primary attention for the next 30–plus years.

Professor Meyer had an extremely productive scholarly career, publishing over 200 technical papers. In recognition of his major research contributions, he was awarded the prestigious Alexander von Humboldt Research Prize for Senior American Scientists. Christian also served as Department Chair from 2007 to 2009, highlighting his dedication and service to the university.