Finding Bruce Graham’s Hispanic Heritage in His Work

6 min readSep 28, 2022

For Hispanic Heritage Month, we look back at the late architect’s connections to the Spanish-speaking world and how it influenced his love for cities, buildings, and art.

Graham’s use of vivid colors, textures, materials, and the manipulation of light and shadow define his award-winning work for Banco de Occidente in Guatemala City. (Photo © Nick Wheeler_

One cannot visualize Chicago’s skyline without the gargantuan contributions of Bruce Graham (1925–2010), nor can one imagine the architect’s career without the power brokers of the American Midwest who counted on him to articulate their ambitions in structural form. But when working on a much smaller scale than a John Hancock or Sears Tower, Graham was able to tap into his roots.

Born in La Cumbre, Colombia, Graham and his family relocated to Arequipa, Peru, shortly after his birth, then to San Juan, Puerto Rico, when he was five. There, he developed a love for drawing and cities, wandering around and enthusiastically mapping the barrios of San Juan for fun. Spanish was Graham’s first language, and through his mother, who was Peruvian, he also maintained a deep appreciation for Peru’s culture and lifelong connections with his many relatives there.

During his time at SOM, from 1951 to 1989, Graham connected the firm to the Spanish-speaking world through his relationships with artists like Joan Miró and Josep Lloren Artigas, and with clients who had no presence in the U.S. — including one that led to an unrealized collaboration with Luis Barragán. Some of his built works, from a bank headquarters in Guatemala City, to a corporate campus in Kalamazoo, drew heavily from his appreciation for the pre-colonial architectural traditions of Latin America. For Hispanic Heritage Month, we’ve compiled five projects that demonstrate Graham’s enthusiasm for and personal connection to the Spanish-speaking world.

Upjohn Corporate Headquarters (1961)

Kalamazoo, Michigan

The locally-sourced rough stone walls at Upjohn’s headquarters were inspired by the Incan masonry found in Cusco, Peru. (Photos © Ezra Stoller)

A total design approach from landscaping to ashtrays — much in the spirit of the Connecticut General Life Insurance headquartersthis suburban campus, set into a gradual incline on a 100-acre meadowland, contains a series of eight courtyards with pools, trees, terraces, and sculptures. Its locally-sourced rough stone walls were inspired by the Incan masonry found in Cusco, a UNESCO World Heritage site in southeastern Peru. When asked during his interview for the Art Institute of Chicago’s oral history project why such an inspiration would be appropriate for Kalamazoo, Graham replied, “Because I’m Peruvian.” He compared the landscape’s progression from the rough stone walls on the edge of the property to the smooth stone of the actual building to the transition from the rough walls on Peru’s potato terraces to the smooth and polished exteriors of its palaces.

Grupo Industrial Alfa (1981)

Monterrey, Mexico

A barrel-vaulted galleria at Grupo Alfa’s headquarters connects to offices, a large auditorium, and an em­ployee cafeteria. (Photos © Robert Fine)

A corporate headquarters for the Monterrey-based company was originally conceived as a collaboration between a Graham-led SOM team, Luis Barragán, and Ricardo Legorreta. Graham had planned a landscaped outdoor courtyard one would walk through to enter the building. After the company’s restructuring, Barragán instead designed a building for one part of the company, and Graham for another. Situated at the foot of the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains on a 25-acre wooded site, SOM’s realized contribution includes offices, a large auditorium, and an em­ployee cafeteria, all united by a barrel-vaulted galleria. Its use of planted courtyards, formal open courts, and a garden court shaded by a high trellis over the cafeteria recalls traditional Mexican landscape design. The open trellis reinforces the visual continuity between the garden and the vaulted structure of the galleria. The use of terra cotta pavers, stuccoed concrete, and wood creates an overall sense of warmth and texture in the spaces.

Banco de Occidente (1978)

Guatemala City, Guatemala

Local architectural concepts of open courtyards, terraces, gardens, fountains, and trellises were integrated into each Banco de Occidente structure. (Photos © Nick Wheeler)

For Guatemala’s Banco de Occidente, Graham and his team designed an urban headquarters in central Guatemala City and two suburban branch banks that establish architectural continuity through the use of vivid colors, textures, materials, and the manipulation of light and shadow. Local architectural concepts of open courtyards, terraces, gardens, fountains, and trellises were integrated into each building, creating a functional and economic design through the studied adaptation of traditional approaches within the context of contemporary architecture. Even the furniture and fabrics designed by SOM for these buildings were locally manufactured.

Graham loved working within Guatemala’s climate as a change of pace from what he was used to in the American midwest. “There isn’t a better climate,” he later recalled. “In Chicago when it gets so hot, you have nowhere for the heat to go. On a cool day, you have the heat from the people going out the window and the sun is coming in. You need a balance and to think of the orientation of the building. You can never make it perfect, except in Guatemala.”

“The Sun, The Moon, and One Star” (1981)

Chicago, Illinois

Left: Graham and SOM colleague William Hartmann pose (photo © SOM) next to a study of the Miró sculpture Chicago would eventually see in 1981 (photo © Chicago History Museum, Hedrich-Blessing Collection; Steve Hall, photographer)

After William Hartmann led SOM’s successful effort to bring a Pablo Picasso sculpture to Chicago’s Daley Plaza, Graham courted Joan Miró for another installation across the street. “The Sun, the Moon and One Star,” the Spanish artist’s 36-foot-high steel, wire mesh, concrete, bronze, and ceramic tile creation, was commissioned in 1965 for SOM’s Brunswick Building.

At Graham’s invitation, Miró visited Chicago, approved the site selection, and made a maquette upon his return to Majorca. Plans for the sculpture were shelved, but Graham kept the maquette in SOM’s Chicago office and stayed in touch with the artist. Finally in 1981, with the cost to build and maintain it split between the city of Chicago and private fundraising, Miró’s sculpture would be installed.

To perfect the final design of the sculpture, SOM put the maquette into its computers to generate various sections and perspective views. Later, a second process involved passing the maquette through a CAT body-scanner for greater accuracy. Cross sectional x-rays of each section were stacked vertically for visual verification. Joan Gardy Artigas, the son of Miró’s longtime collaborator Josep Llorens Artigas, and who had worked as a sculptor for Miró since childhood, used SOM’s computerized plans to bring “The Sun, The Moon, and One Star” to life.

Artigas Foundation Studios (1989)

Galifa, Spain

Graham’s Artigas Foundation studios complement both the Spanish vil­lage tradition and the local land­scape of Galifa. (Photos © Josep Llorens | Artigas Foundation)

Joan Gardy Artigas set up a foundation in honor of his father in 1989. It was then that he asked Graham to design the foundation’s studios for visiting artists in Galifa, Spain, where the senior Artigas and Miró worked together dating back to the 1940s. Adjacent to a medieval chapel and an ancient mill, and set into the sloped and terraced countryside of old vineyards and scattered woods north of Barce­lona, the studios provide work and living spaces for visiting artists. Linked by a series of stone walk­ways and landscaped court­yards, two-level buildings rest on sepa­rate terrace levels in a manner that complements both the Spanish vil­lage tradition and the local land­scape.

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