In 1936, a small architectural firm was founded in Chicago, Illinois, by Louis Skidmore and Nathaniel Owings. Three years later, they would be joined by John O. Merrill, their initials forming an acronym that would become synonymous with skyscrapers, the International Style and global architectural practice. 80 years on, that trio of architects has transformed into one of the world’s largest and most well-known firms, having completed over 10,000 projects across more than 50 countries.
Today, SOM is as prosperous as ever: Its brand of cutting-edge design and use of emerging technologies has been recognized in the shape of six shortlisted projects for the 2016 A+Awards, the world’s largest awards program in architecture. To celebrate the firm’s anniversary year, Architizer spoke to three key Partners — TJ Gottesdiener, Roger Duffy and Gary Haney — about the firm’s origins, its extraordinary evolution over the decades and its big ambitions for the future.
Paul Keskeys: Tell me a little about the firm’s origins — how did it all begin for SOM?
TJ Gottesdiener: It all started in Chicago, when Louis Skidmore, an ambitious young architect, was tapped to design the city’s 1933 Century of Progress Exposition. He invited his charismatic brother-in-law, Nathaniel Owings, to join him. Based on the relationships they built during the Exposition, the two young men decided to launch their own firm. SOM started with small projects, but its founding partners were always looking ahead.
After formally establishing their Chicago studio in 1936, they expanded to New York the following year. They recruited the best talent they could find, including John O. Merrill, who brought expertise in federal housing projects, and Gordon Bunshaft, who powerfully shaped the firm’s design approach.
Gary Haney: In those early years, just as today, the firm was driven by constant innovation and reinvention. The founders wanted this firm to outlast them, and so they set up SOM as a partnership from the very beginning. That structure is what positioned the firm for continuous renewal. It’s the reason we’re stronger than ever after 80 years, and it’s what ensures that SOM will continue to adapt and grow.
Left: Lever House; image courtesy SOM / © Jerry Cooke. Right: Lever House terrace; image courtesy SOM / © Thomas Murtaugh
Which projects, from 1936 to the present day, do you feel constitute seminal moments in SOM’s history, and why?
TJ Gottesdiener: Lever House was a turning point. As the first glass and steel office tower in New York City, it became the model for corporate architecture for decades to come. We take these buildings for granted today, but I love those photos of Park Avenue when Lever House was built and it was surrounded by low-rise masonry structures. It was so ahead of its time.
I think there’s no doubt that One World Trade Center will be viewed as one of SOM’s most important projects. It’s become an icon for New York City and has anchored the revitalization of Lower Manhattan. It’s probably also the most challenging project we’ve ever done.
Roger Duffy: Back in the 1960s, SOM designed the Weyerhaeuser headquarters, a building that beautifully integrated landscape, architecture and sustainability. It was one of the first modernist buildings that synthetically merged those things together. That synthesis is something that we are always pursuing with our projects.
John Hancock Center; image courtesy SOM / © Ezra Stoller | Esto
Gary Haney: For decades, SOM has made pioneering developments with supertall buildings. This is facilitated by the firm’s integration of architecture and engineering, which accounts for the structural clarity you can see throughout our work. In the 1970s, projects like John Hancock Tower and Willis Tower represented a new archetype for merging architecture and structure.
Today, we’re making new innovations with projects like Al Hamra Tower in Kuwait, with concrete flare walls that shelter the building from the intense desert climate while also mitigating wind forces. We did this by using concrete in a way that’s never been done at this scale. It’s a great example of how we’re always testing new applications of materials and experimenting with new ways to build.
Al Hamra Tower; images courtesy SOM / Nick Merrick © Hedrich Blessing
SOM has weathered many storms, from World War II to the global financial crisis of 2008. What philosophies do you feel have helped SOM to grow and adapt in order to remain one of the largest architecture firms in the world?
Gary Haney: SOM has always worked as a collective enterprise, and I think this has been one of the keys to our longevity and growth. We’re not a name-driven firm. Instead, we’re driven by our constantly evolving partnership. This allows us to produce good work without interruption.
TJ Gottesdiener: We’re always finding better and better ways to improve communication within the firm, so that knowledge is shared across all of our offices. We have highly specialized studios and practice groups that focus on building specific expertise, which can then be applied to projects throughout the firm. This collective expertise is one of our key strengths.
Roger Duffy: We have about a thousand people working at SOM, so it might seem large, but compared to some of these aggregated firms now, it’s not so large. We are an independent partnership, and that gives us incredible freedom to just stay focused on quality.
One World Trade Center; image courtesy TIME © Stephen Wilkes
Your firm states that collaboration is a “guiding force” for its practice. How does SOM collaborate with clients and/or other architecture firms throughout the design process?
TJ Gottesdiener: For our biggest projects, like One World Trade Center, collaboration is an essential part of the process. It’s the only way to grapple with incredibly complex problems, and to satisfy the needs of multiple stakeholders. The ability to find creative solutions and build consensus is something that SOM has always excelled at. It’s one of the things that sets our firm apart.
Roger Duffy: In order to do work that is truly innovative, you need to build teams of collaborators, and then leverage the creativity of all of the people on the team. We did this, for example, with a project that recently opened in Staten Island, P.S. 62, which is New York City’s first net-zero energy school. This is something that had never been done before, so, from the very beginning, we had workshops with school administrators to understand how they would use the building. We met with all of the stakeholders and consultants very early in the process, to focus the entire team on the single question of how we could save energy with our design.
P.S. 62 The Kathleen Grimm School for Leadership and Sustainability; images courtesy SOM / © James Ewing | OTTO
Gary Haney: And collaboration is more than just about how we work with our clients and consultants. It’s embedded in the way we work within the firm. We have specialists in different disciplines who integrate their expertise to achieve results that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. When you have some of the best architects, engineers, transportation designers and city planners working collaboratively, you can approach projects in a holistic way, and make real breakthroughs.
Which of SOM’s present-day peers do you most look up to, and why?
Roger Duffy: I mostly take inspiration from peers in affiliated fields, especially in the visual arts. On a number of our projects, we have collaborated with artists, such as James Turrell and Jenny Holzer. Working with these artists is very inspiring, because it pushes us to think about our work in a different way, and it opens up aesthetic possibilities that we might not have seen otherwise.
Left: Manhattan West; image courtesy SOM / © Millerhare. Right: Guiyang Cultural Plaza Tower; image © SOM | ATCHAIN
Which current projects on the firm’s drawing board most excite you, and why?
Gary Haney: I’m excited about our work on the West Side of Manhattan, which contributes to the transformation of an entire city district. We’ve designed a tower at Hudson Yards that will be one of New York’s tallest when completed. And our firm has master-planned the adjacent Manhattan West development, where we built a platform above active rail lines to create the foundation for a thriving, mixed-use neighborhood. It’s anchored by three towers that we designed — two of which are over 1,000 feet tall — which will create a new architectural landmark for the West Side. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape an entire new piece of Manhattan, and we’ve been thrilled to play a leading role in this.
Roger Duffy: I’m excited about many of our international projects. In China, we’ve designed a tower in Guiyang that will be the city’s tallest, and it anchors a new cultural district that we master-planned. The tower’s design is an evolution of our integrated approach to architecture and structure, which is driven by new design technology.
Moynihan Train Hall; image courtesy SOM / Methanoia
Here in New York, we’re very excited about our design for Moynihan Train Hall, which is part of the redevelopment of the entire Penn Station complex. SOM has been involved with this enormous civic effort since it was first proposed nearly two decades ago, and with our latest design, we’re closer to making it a reality. As a transportation hub worthy of New York City’s energy and grandeur, this project has the potential to transform the experience of Penn Station for hundreds of thousands of people every day.
TJ Gottesdiener: Another game-changing transportation project is taking shape in Florida, where we’ve designed three mixed-use train stations — in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach — that will anchor a new rail network called Brightline. It’s an exciting project because of how these stations will transform their respective cities. It’s encouraging greater density, and looking toward a more sustainable future in which people will be less reliant on cars to get around.
Top: All Aboard Florida West Palm Beach; Bottom: All Aboard Florida Miami. Images © SOM
How do you see the firm evolving over the next 80 years? What will the firm do to remain at the top of the profession?
TJ Gottesdiener: One of the keys to our success has always been finding and cultivating the best talent. We have some of the top designers and engineers in the industry working here, and we’re always working to develop the next generation of leadership.
Roger Duffy: SOM has never been content to rest on its laurels. We’re constantly evaluating our own work and striving to do better. This is embedded in the culture of the firm. One of the ways we do this is with the SOM Journal, where we invite outside critiques of our work, which we then publish. It may be an unconventional approach, but it’s all directed toward elevating the quality of the work.
How do you think emerging technologies — 3D Printing, robotics, nanomaterials — will transform SOM’s work over the coming decades?
Roger Duffy: We’re constantly exploring new technologies and finding applications for them in our work. One of the ways we’re doing this is through CASE, our research partnership with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
We have 20 to 30 doctoral students here in our office every day. They do research on future issues of sustainability and develop technologies that we’re patenting and putting into projects. For example, they developed a bio-mechanical hybrid system that amplifies the air-cleaning capacity of plants. We’re already using this in a public safety center project that’s opening this year in New York City. This new technology will reduce the building’s energy use, and also improve the quality of life for the people working inside the facility.
AMIE 1.0; image © SOM
Gary Haney: Another important research partnership is our work with the US Department of Energy and Oak Ridge National Laboratories. With this collaboration, we’re doing very exciting work with 3D printing and finding new applications for this technology. We recently designed a project called AMIE, which is an energy-efficient 3D-printed building that stores renewable power and shares energy wirelessly with a 3D-printed vehicle. Research partnerships like this allow our firm to continually test and explore new ideas, and to remain at the forefront of technology and innovation.
Do you have any advice for young architects aspiring to work within a large international firm like SOM?
Roger Duffy: SOM is a very encouraging place for certain talented people. We leverage and trust talent. The best idea wins, and that’s the one that gets advanced. Young designers who are able to leverage their intelligence and efforts can find incredible opportunities here.