American architectural practice founded in Chicago in 1939 by Louis Skidmore (b Lawrenceburg, IN, 8 April 1897; d Winter Haven, FL, 27 Sept 1962) and Nathaniel A(lexander) Owings (b Indianapolis, IN, 5 Feb 1903; d Santa Fe, NM, 13 June 1984), and the engineer John O(gden) Merrill (b St Paul, MN, 10 Aug 1896; d Chicago, IL, 13 June 1975). Both Skidmore and Owings were trained as architects, and they worked together on the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago (1929–34) before forming a partnership in 1936. In an attempt to gain more commissions they opened a branch office in New York in 1937. During World War II SOM were commissioned to design the town at Oak Ridge, TN (completed 1946), to house those who worked on the atom bomb. The experience that they gained on this enabled them to develop an exceptional organizational and managerial capability at an early stage. The firm dominated American corporate architectural practice for over three decades and during this time grew to be the largest in the country, if not the world. It created an American image and style: International Style, modernist, glossy, meticulously detailed buildings, fitted out with modern furniture and art. At one time or another the firm had branch offices in nearly every American city, and they would compete with one another for commissions.
SOM defined a new architectural approach of team work and total or comprehensive design, since the firm undertook everything: design, engineering, landscaping, urban planning and interiors. Also an innovation, especially given the quality of work and the prominence of the firm, was that none of the founding partners actually designed. The character of SOM’s work was much influenced by the engineers who became partners in the practice. In addition to Merrill, who established the multi-disciplinary nature of the firm, they included Myron Goldsmith and Fazlur Khan (1929–82), both of whom joined the firm in 1955. The firm’s designers included Gordon Bunshaft in New York and Bruce Graham (b 1925) and Walter Netsch (b 1920) in Chicago. Architectural recognition came first with Lever House (1952), New York, by Bunshaft. It is a 21-storey rectangular block, in plan only about one third of the available plot area, placed above one end of a 2-storey podium, which extends to the edges of the site and is open at street level. Not only was this the genotype of hundreds of city buildings, giving better access to natural light and air, but its almost transparent curtain-wall skin, made possible by brilliant structural engineering, opened a new, glass-aesthetic phase of modernism, to be imitated all over the world. Structural innovation continued as the Miesian frame moved outside the building skin in examples such as the Business Men’s Assurance building (1963), Kansas City, and the Tennessee Gas Corporation Headquarters (1964), Houston. Virtuosity reached a new dimension when Khan and Graham put into practice the ‘tubular frame’ method of design, which enabled super-tall structures to be built without cost-penalty for additional height. It resulted in such buildings as the Sears Tower (1974), in Chicago, one of the world’s tallest buildings (442 m), and Exchange House (1990), London, with its exoskeletal steel arches bridging the railway lines entering Liverpool Street Station (part of the Broadgate development).
Another of SOM’s great achievements was their establishment of the low-rise peri-urban company headquarters as a building type in the 1950s and 1960s; they gave it a desirable image as a corporate modern Versailles set in park-like surroundings. An early example is the Connecticut General Life Insurance company headquarters (1957) at Bloomingfield, CT, which was followed by many others including United Airlines (1962), Des Plaines, IL. Also significant was Netsch’s ‘field theory’, developed in the early 1960s, a three-dimensional open-planning technique designed to free major complexes such as hospitals and universities from the boxiness of repetition, for example the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago (1965–71). Although the rise of Post-modernism was antagonistic to SOM’s major designers whose roots were in abstract modernism, throughout the 1980s SOM continued to build creative, high-quality corporate and institutional buildings across the USA and increasingly overseas, for example the huge Haj Terminal (1981–2; for illustration see Airport) at King Abdul Aziz International Airport, Jiddah and the National Commercial Bank of Jiddah (1982), both Saudi Arabia, and the American Embassy (1987), Moscow, Russia.
Richard Guy Wilson
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press