Seven Decades of Skyscrapers

Known for some of the world's tallest buildings, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill has reached retirement age but shows no sign of slowing down

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Elegant, understated, sophisticated, and, to put it bluntly, efficiently executed, the 70th anniversary party for the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in New York on Sept. 6 was a fittingly graceful affair. Hundreds of guests milled about on the outdoor, third-floor terrace of Lever House, one of the country's most iconic office buildings.

It was an appropriate venue: SOM designed the building for the American arm of Unilever (UL) in the early 1950s, and the stately edifice is considered a classic of U.S. modernism. If its rectangular shape and multitude of glass windows looks utterly familiar and somewhat generic these days, it's only because the design set the standard for office buildings in years to come.

Founded in 1936, the architecture and design firm has completed more than 10,000 buildings. But SOM is best known for designing and building skyscrapers—some of the world's tallest and most imaginative—and for constantly striving to find new ways to stretch to great heights.


  Chicago's 110-story Sears Tower, the world's highest-reaching building from 1974 to 1996, is by SOM. Its structure of separate parts united by sturdy exterior frames made it possible to build a record-breaking skyscraper that defied the straight, rod-like paradigm. The forthcoming Burj Dubai, which at 2,313 feet will outstretch any other tower on the planet (completion is scheduled for 2009), is also an SOM building. Its swirl-like design isn't only aesthetically pleasing—it also ensures that the mass of the structure lessens as it reaches the top, thus keeping it steady.

From the beginning, SOM's goals have been to marry form and function for beautiful and financial results that would please both the designers and their corporate clients. (In addition to its skyscrapers, the firm has also completed numerous residential, transportation, and educational projects, in which those same rules have driven its design.)

The "good design translates into good business" credo is currently a hot topic among corporations and consultants, but it has long been part of SOM's philosophy. As one of the firm's founders, Nathaniel Owings, presciently wrote in 1973: "Through combining group practice and good design, social change, showmanship, we would marinate our architectural demands in sound economics to meet the criteria of our doubting critics—who didn't believe that one could have both economy and aesthetics—with proof that they were one and the same."


  Certainly, companies and real estate developers seek out SOM to design show-stopping structures that will also help build brand recognition. After all, whenever a passerby marvels at the Sears Tower, the Sears (SHLD) brand name is an indelible association.

SOM has also attracted attention from corporate-world clients for its unique approach to project management. From SOM's inception, its goal has been to have various offices with their own, distinctive styles, as opposed to building a practice based on a "starchitect"-brand of design based on one person's vision, à la Frank Lloyd Wright, I. M. Pei, Frank Gehry, or, more recently, Zaha Hadid.

Still, some of SOM's architects have reached mythical status, while remaining forever associated with the firm. Among them are the late Gordon Bunshaft, a modernist Pritzker Prize winner known for his forceful personality and bold design ethic, who met founders Louis Skidmore and Owings in the early 1930s and was SOM's chief designer until he retired in the mid-1980s.

"The firm is seeing a renaissance that's also tapping into our legacy. We're pushing our clients further along in design," T. J. Gottesdiener, a current partner at SOM, said over a drink at Lever House's public restaurant before the anniversary party began. As such, they aren't simply sought after as the go-to firm for the tallest buildings. Many of their projects also push the envelope of sustainable architecture.


  One notable example is the firm's design for Guangzhou, China's Pearl River Tower, which promises to be one of the world's "greenest" skyscrapers when built. The eco-friendly angle is one of the latest innovative strategies that SOM is developing to carry on the inventive spirit of its founders.

"We're also looking with outside labs and other companies to work with new technologies and materials," Gottesdiener noted. For example, for SOM's design of the forthcoming Freedom Tower at New York's Ground Zero, the firm used only Autodesk's (ADSK) Revit Building 3D modelling tool—there were no sketches, no print-outs. The entire, ambitious skyscraper was designed using this digital approach—an industry first. And Gottesdiener adds that SOM is working with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to explore new materials that might aid in designing sturdier, safer buildings in the future.

SOM's spirit of experimentation inspired Nicholas Adams, a Vassar professor who wrote the independently researched and written book Skidmore, Owings & Merrill: The Experiment Since 1936 (Electa).

"I cribbed the title from a 1950s article called 'The Experiment of SOM.' I wanted to show that a large firm building as a partnership was an experiment and continues to be unusual in architecture," Adams said, standing on the Lever House terrace at the party. "From the outside, it seems monolithic and bureaucratic. But it's a firm that welcomes discussion and argument. They've produced a staggering number of important buildings."


  "Sure, when there are 10,000 of them in the archives, not all are great," Adams acknowledged. "But the experiment has produced interesting forms that were the first of their kind, such as the rural corporate campus," referring to the Connecticut General Insurance Company's Bloomfield (Conn.) headquarters, completed in the late 1950s. With its long hallways and communal spaces based on a careful analysis of efficient pedestrian foot traffic, the structure has set the standard for office parks around the world.

Even as the anniversary party and Adams' richly illustrated book celebrate the first 70 years of SOM, its story is far from finished. When Lever House was dedicated in 1952, former New York Mayor Vincent Impelliteri dubbed it "the building of tomorrow." Fifty-four years later, SOM is still looking to the future.

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