The Experiment Continues

An architecture critic takes stock of SOM in its 85th year.

by Sam Lubell

Burj Khalifa set the tone for SOM through the 2010s. The dozens of projects that followed are seamless, elegant buildings whose forms, programs, and functions seem simple, even inevitable, although they are anything but. Photo © Nick Merrick | Hedrich Blessing

Our sixth monograph, SOM: Works by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 2009–2019, is now available online and in bookstores. To mark the occasion, we’re sharing this excerpt of architecture journalist Sam Lubell’s essay from the book—an examination of SOM’s depth and agility in the face of existential changes occurring all over the world today.

How much have things changed since SOM’s last monograph was published, back in 2008?

The past decade has almost certainly brought us a higher level of complexity than any in history. Innovations and challenges alike have bombarded our world, like unprecedented peaks in digitization and globalization, the intensification of climate change, the exploding growth of emerging economies, and unprecedented trials in public health and racial and economic inequality.

While many of today’s complexities are not new, they have expanded, layered, and intensified at an exponential clip. The iPhone, for instance, was invented in 2007, precipitating a mobile computing revolution that has transformed how we live and work. The internet was already ascendant prior to this decade, but its application for telecommuting, design and construction management (i.e. Revit and BIM), and other forms of connectivity, was far from the norm. Architects’ digital tools, while powerful and omnipresent, were still rudimentary compared to the powerful parametric, computer learning, and optimization tools that are now commonplace. Globalization, development, and gentrification were all powerful forces, but their impacts had yet to reach what many have called peak levels, just as inequality and inequity were reaching their own breaking points. Climate change was a major issue before this decade, but its impacts have been felt at a dizzyingly expanding rate, from floods and hurricanes to entire landmasses being subsumed.

The long span diagrid of Poly International Plaza takes a classic SOM technique and, through algorithmic examination, optimizes its elements for a superior final product. Photo © Bruce Damonte

Through it all, SOM has remained … SOM. It has not attempted to rebrand or rethink its core. At its heart, the firm is still organized, to paraphrase firm scholar Nicholas Adams, like a loose federation of city-states, with independent offices, each with its own strengths, cultures, and personalities, working together closely. And at its core, SOM is still a firm that most of all is about rigor. Rigor in structure, in design, in engineering, in expertise, in organization. Nothing is done at a superficial level: all challenges are addressed, resolved, then addressed again, across expertise and across the world. But while that infrastructure is familiar, its evolution to meet our age’s pressing changes has forced a deeper resolve. The scale and complexity of work has more than ever necessitated an all-hands-on-deck approach. Divisions have been put aside in favor of common goals, and top-down decision making has been, for good reason, supplemented and in many cases replaced by a deepened “best idea wins” mentality; one that has always existed at the firm, but never to the extent it is now.

The “city-state” offices that Adams referred to have always been a vital part of SOM’s culture. There’s never been a single figurehead dictating the firm’s direction. And there has always been a spirit of healthy competition, driving independent culture and thought; subsuming ego in favor of collective achievement. But in order to adapt to these mutable times, these independent offices have in recent years expanded their scope, deepened their expertise, and coordinated their resources.

Eighty percent of the new Billie Jean King Main Library in Long Beach, California, is made of timber. SOM’s Tower Research Project has focused on the use of mass timber as a highly sustainable, primary structural material since 2013. Photo © Benny Chan | Fotoworks

Responding to rapidly growing opportunities, the firm has launched new offices (Hong Kong) and reinstated former ones (Washington D.C., Los Angeles) while venturing into new geographic frontiers within East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, Central America, and Australia. Siloes that have kept offices, and their architects, apart have begun to break down by necessity. Project groups have begun to rely on team-based structures more than hierarchical ones. There is still a division of labor, but the dialogue around design problems has flattened. Ideas drive design more potently than any senior designer. Within each office, the two-track structure that divides architects from the start into design and technical, has been largely eliminated.

Polaris Hall at the U.S. Air Force Academy, an adaptive reuse project on a historic SOM-designed campus, weaves into the existing area both physically and metaphorically. Photo © Magda Biernat

And grassroots groups — from those studying climate change, technology, and structure to those representing once-marginalized voices like women, minorities, and LGBTQ communities — have proliferated, encouraging broader participation, and for ideas and talent to percolate up rather than down. Thanks to such efforts, SOM now has its first all-female Executive Committee, while the firm, with SOM members of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), has developed an action plan to bring more equity, diversity, and inclusion to the firm. These are valuable changes, but there needs to be more.

Between offices, there is still that sense of competition, but it’s been largely replaced by a sense of cooperation. Expertise in subjects like structure, sustainability, adaptive reuse, and planning transcend locality, while on some projects, particularly those in Asia, architects in different offices work around the world clock — passing the baton to the next time zone as their offices close for the day — to maximize manpower. Powerful digital tools have further linked employees across offices and disciplines.

A prime research focus at SOM is digital fabrication, offering important possibilities in form, detail, modeling, prefabrication, and mass production. AMIE 1.0, (Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy) is a collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory to develop a 3D-printed building — made of prefabricated, C-shaped ribs — that creates and stores solar power. Photo © Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Research initiatives are by no means new, but their firmwide — and worldwide — scope is. SOM Journal highlights conceptual undercurrents through critiques, essays, and case studies; the Thinkers series focuses on critical thought from those inside and outside the firm on overarching themes, including skyscrapers, public space, and transportation. And several offices and studios have continued to develop and hone firmwide design guides as tools for the firm at large, from city planning and sustainability best practices to design guides for materials as well as active and passive design.

SOM has always been about grasping into the future, walking a kind of tightrope without a net, where its rigor and skill has allowed it to achieve true innovation.

In this new reality, with its infinitely expanding opportunities and hurdles, it’s the expertise, not the office or the individual, that has taken the fore. The firm has broadened this expertise, often across regions, setting bold new directions that have helped integrate its organization, and by extension its projects. But these projects have been most successful when the scope of expertise both comes together as a whole and reaches into new territory. SOM has always been about grasping into the future, walking a kind of tightrope without a net, where its rigor and skill has allowed it to achieve true innovation. That tightrope keeps getting longer, and more intricate. The firm has always pushed the boundaries of what architecture means, most notably in the streamlined merger of structure, engineering, and design. Now it is incorporating — as well as synthesizing and resolving — a much wider scope of considerations, from security and climate change to the powerful possibilities of computer learning.

At its mid-century heyday, SOM’S coordination across disciplines was, to a large extent, about merging design and structure. Every decade since has incorporated more disciplines, scales, and trials. The challenge, as always, has been addressing these issues all together.

The United States Courthouse in Los Angeles typifies SOM’s seamless, holistic approach. Appearing as a floating glass cube, the building thoroughly and elegantly addressing security, seismic, solar gain, security, and sustainability. Photo © Benny Chan | Fotoworks

The designers of Burj Khalifa set the tone for this decade’s progress by taking into account (to name just a few categories) gravity loads, wind speeds, energy use, natural ventilation, condensate recovery, seismic protection, circulation, and security concerns, not to mention cultural symbolism, master planning, landscape, and urban revitalization. The dozens of projects that followed are seamless, elegant buildings whose forms, programs, and functions seem simple, even inevitable, although they are anything but. The United States Courthouse in Los Angeles typifies this seamless, holistic approach, thoroughly and elegantly addressing security (with a novel truss system that increases the distance between the perimeter and primary structure), seismic (with a roof truss connecting the reinforced concrete shear walls at the top story), solar gain (employing a pleated facade that adjusts for orientation by incorporating opaque panels in east- and west-facing folds), and sustainability (with a rooftop photovoltaic array, ten-story skylit atrium, drought-tolerant landscaping, and other features that helped the building achieve a LEED Platinum rating.) The floating, faceted glazed cube doesn’t just manage complexity, it harnesses it to vibrantly intertwine architectural singularity and diversity, and to subtly embed technical fluency and programmatic efficiency.

All of these interlocked strands stand as a metaphor for SOM itself. There is no single specialty, no single architect, and no single team. There is rigor and there is collaboration. This approach requires a lot of people, a lot of focus, and a lot of work. But the result, as it always has been, is a remarkably resolved creation.

We are a collective of architects, designers, engineers, and planners building a better future. To learn more, visit www.som.com.