The architecture firm that reached for the sky

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Burj Khalifa. The Sears Tower. The World Trade Center... If it's a colossal construction, then Skidmore, Owings & Merrill probably designed it. Jay Merrick gets the measure of global architecture's biggest beasts

When the disgraced banker Fred "The Shred" Goodwin joined architects RMJM as a consultant last month, any pretence that international architecture is purely about design was lost forever. Never before had a practice recruited a bona fide Master of the Universe in a bid to become one of the deities of the multi-billion dollar global building trade.

Trying to play God lends itself to satire. John Lanchester, writing in in the London Review of Books, lampooned Goodwin's RBS as carrying out "rigorous research so that we can be confident we know the issues that are most important to our stakeholders and we take practical steps to respond to what they tell us. Then occasionally, we blow all that shit off, fire up some crystal meth, and throw money around with such crazed abandon that it helps destroy the public finances of the world's fifth-biggest economy."

Edinburgh-based RMJM, led by Peter Morrison, is a hefty international practice given to attaching major architects, such as Rafael Moneo and Frank Gehry, to its competition bids to bling them up. The Goodwin move is a bold attempt to join the profession's real silverbacks – those practices which land the endless column-inches and high- profile eight- and nine-figure projects.

And who are the real King Kongs of architecture in 2010? The list is surprisingly short: Norman Foster heads it, standing imperiously aloof from Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Herzog and de Meuron, and Rem Koolhaas. Their buildings have "signature" design qualities. Foster, peerless hi-tech; Piano, elegantly refined frames; Rogers, vividly articulated structure; Hadid, sculptural abstraction; Herzog and de Meuron, virtuosity of detail; Koolhaas, edgy forms that are simultaneously utopian and dystopian.

These architectural A-listers exist in an utterly rarefied, Because-I'm-Worth-It domain. A few weeks ago, I watched The New Yorker's charmingly laconic feature writer, John Seabrook, trail Zaha Hadid around her just- completed Maxxi art museum in Rome. The urbane scribe's brush with ZahaWorld was akin to the Greek historian Herodotus reporting the rumour, in the fifth century BC, that there were fox-sized ants in Persia that collected gold dust.

So the world has seven "starchitects", and they get a great deal of gold dust for designing the architectural equivalents of fox-sized ants. But these gorillas are not quite alone. There's another practice whose historically monstrous shadow covers them all, yet it's virtually unknown to the public. It's American, it's known as SOM, and the resonant power of those letters is rooted in the legend of three men who were modern architecture's first genuine Masters of the Universe: Louis Skidmore, Nath- aniel Owings, and John Merrill.

From the late Thirties, they wrote the book on architecture as big business. By 1941, they were designing projects annually worth today's equivalent of $213m; by 1957, the figure had stabilised to around $1.3bn (£830m) in today's money.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill have been behind no fewer five of the 10 tallest buildings in the world, including the recently completed Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai. They are designing the key buildings on the World Trade Center site in New York, and delivering massive schemes, such as the masterplan for the £49bn King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia, and a jaw-dropping expansion of Beijing's central business district. Yet it's not the £160m or so in annual design fees, or more than 900 staff, that sets SOM apart. After all, architects including Foster and the American giants HOK, Kohn Pedersen Fox and Gensler share the same stratosphere in terms of project values and fees.

The key fact here is that none of them can even begin to compete with the trajectory and awesome bigness of SOM through time. Almost from the practice's inception in 1936, its freakishly successful fusion of design innovation and the ability to lock on to the biggest clients in America created architecture's first super-practice. And by the Fifties and Sixties it was much more than that: many of the buildings designed by SOM were at the cutting-edge of what we now call Mid-Century Modernist architecture. Some of their buildings from this period became as iconic and influential as the legendary masterpieces of Mies van der Rohe, which set the original international benchmark for large-scale glass and steel architecture.

I remember, as a boy in San Francisco in 1960, gazing up at the polished dark-brown Minnesota granite facade and bronze-framed, smoked-glass windows of SOM's John Hancock Western Home Office at the corner of California and Battery Streets and experiencing a childish version of what the art historian Robert Hughes calls "the shock of the new".

Jack Lemmon's film The Apartment – with its bleak vistas of office desks and expressionless company men – was showing at the Fox Theatre in San Francisco that year. The nattier businessmen around me on the pavement were Don Draper clones who trailed the mingled smells of Right Guard deodorant, Lavoris mouthwash, and the violet-grey smoke of Kent cigarettes – whose Micronite filters and packet design were implicitly modernist. And it was SOM who supplied the most architecturally striking nine-to-five environments for the most upwardly mobile pioneers of John F. Kennedy's "New Frontier".

Even so, how did SOM get so damned big, so damned fast? And what, in 2010, is the price of this architectural gigantism – not just for SOM, but for the latest generation of Big Architects?

***

There's a touch of The Great Gatsby to the SOM story, which begins with an extraordinary sequence of chance meetings, outcomes, and remorselessly ramifying political and financial connections that Messrs Skidmore, Owings and Merrill were patently not born with. They had architectural and engineering talent, but it didn't approach genius; yet, like the mysteriously self-made Jay Gatsby, they knew from the very beginning how to recognise brilliance, how to manoeuvre, and how to make things happen.

Skidmore and Owings, the key players in the partnership, were from Indiana, and Merrill from Wisconsin. Skid, as he was known, was the son of a freight-car brakeman, and had studied electrical engineering at Bradley Technical College in Illinois. He'd always been interested in architecture, though, and after serving in the 1914-18 war enrolled at Boston Architectural School, and then MIT. Owings' father was a timber merchant, down on his luck after losing his mill in a flood. But when young Nat Owings won a Boy Scout competition for a trip to a Scout Jamboree in London, he was smitten by the city's historic buildings, and eventually studied architecture at Cornell.

But here's the pivotal moment – the crazy, you-couldn't-make-it-up bit. During Skidmore's final months of architectural study in Europe, the renowned architect Raymond Hood was planning the 1933 Century of Progress expo in Chicago and tracked him down in Italy, where he was travelling with a mutual friend, Carl Landfeld.

Hood contacted Landfeld and told him: "Get the hell up to Paris, and get Skid, and start some sketches for the Chicago World's Fair." Incredibly, Skidmore was made head of design for the expo, and Owings, who happened to be his brother-in-law, joined him.

"Thus, while Nat Owings learned to organise and entertain men, Louis Skidmore got to know the men with the money, to know what they wanted, and what he and Owings could provide," reports Nicholas Adams in Skidmore, Owings & Merrill: The Experiment Since 1936. "Owings was a booster, a natural fabulist, limited in his design abilities and education, but gifted with the abilities to win over even sworn enemies with his charm." Presto! The boys from nowhere in particular were not just on their way to architecture's promised land, they were smack-dab in it.

Skidmore was the visionary, and he and his partners were networkers and team builders par excellence. Within a year, SOM had opened offices in Chicago and New York. They employed Gordon Bunshaft, one of the most brilliant architects of his generation, and took on designers of hospitals, housing – and snazzy brochures.

By 1939, SOM were on very friendly and mutually productive terms with the presidents of American industrial giants such as Kimberly-Clark and Heinz. And then, crucially, Louis Skidmore was appointed resident architect of the Long Island State Park Commission by Robert Moses, the man who dictated New York's major urban projects for the next 40 years. Within just three years of starting practice, SOM had become an amazingly well-connected and major fee-generating force in American architecture. No other 20th-century architectural practice has risen to dominance so quickly, and so completely.

SOM's original clients, according to Nicholas Adams, were "trained by Skidmore and Owings at the expositions and fairs, and came to SOM for something entirely original to express their ideals and goals and sell their products, rather than a sense of building for the ages". Fabulous commissions became the norm.

One crisp winter afternoon in 1942, recalled Owings in 1946, "two quite ordinary looking men in even more ordinary civilian clothes walked into our New York office, unannounced, and requested an interview with Skidmore". The mystery men were government spooks who duly appointed SOM to design a top-secret new town at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Population: 75,000. Cost: $160m. Purpose: to design the atom bomb. It was a project that generated several volumes of statistical research, which duly gave SOM unparalleled insights into the organisational basis of urban design.

Then, in the Fifties, the US government awarded SOM contracts in Japan, Guam, Morocco and Okinawa; and Nelson Rockefeller, then the richest man in the world, steered them into massive Standard Oil and US Steel projects in Venezuela and Sumatra. A stream of big-league clients joined the queue, including Lever Brothers, Hilton Hotels, General Electric and Pepsi-Cola. When SOM designed a factory for the Sawyer Biscuit Company, product unit costs were halved – and so was the workforce. This was architecture as production design-cum-brand, and it supported Gordon Bunshaft's famously pragmatic remarks about design: "I am not an intellectual. I am just straightforward . . . first of all, a building has to work . . . I'm not sure office buildings are even architecture. They're really a mathematical calculation, just three-dimensional investments."

But that didn't stop him designing one of the most famous modernist structures of the Fifties, the Lever Building in New York, whose big idea – a tower on a raised podium – has been copied scores of times all over the world. Bunshaft's brusqueness was remarkable. Take this description of his design response for the Beineke Library at Yale University: "As soon as we got the job, I started thinking about a rare book library, and there isn't much to know about it. What it is, is a huge vault, a secure place with tremendous humidity and temperature control and stacking of books. There's some offices for curators, there's a reading room for a few scholars, and some exhibition space for little books and stuff." Such lese-majesty surely encouraged the super-articulate design historian Charles Jencks to dismiss the building's translucent marble facades as "a series of piled up television sets".

Nevertheless, between the mid-Fifties and the mid-Seventies, SOM – through lead architects such as Bunshaft, Bruce Graham, Myron Goldsmith, and the Bangladeshi wunderkind Fazlur Khan – designed and delivered extraordinarily innovative, and often breathtakingly beautiful, buildings . . . the Manufacturers Trust building in New York; the Inland Steel headquarters, Chicago; the Pepsi-Cola Corporation in New York; and exquisite singularities, too, such as the chapel at the US Air Force Academy, and the Republic Newspaper Printing Plant.

By 1974, SOM had also designed and delivered what are still the two greatest skyscrapers since the Second World War – the Hancock Center and the Sears Tower, both in Chicago. The former was described by the historian Robert Mark as "the Bourges Cathedral of our time". Meanwhile, Khan was designing the then-unique Teflon- coated fibreglass tent structures for the Hajj pilgrims' terminal at Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.

And then, hubris. At precisely this point, the highly influential architectural commentator Ada Louise Huxtable unsheathed her pen. "Something has gone wrong at SOM," she wrote in The New York Times, "and saying so is a little like attacking the Pope."

SOM's buildings were being perceived as showpiece objects that paid scant attention to their urban settings. It was a question that had already been raised in 1957 by the historian Sigfried Giedion. "How is it possible in such a large organisation," he asked, "to hold business interests in the background so that they don't interfere with architectural solutions? This is not only a question that concerned the SOM experiment. It is a question that affects the fate of our whole [post-war] period."

Giedion's warning is more relevant today than it was 53 years ago. There are more SOM clones or wannabes now, all of them – like RMJM with their strap-on Fred Goodwin jetpack – bent on growth. The really big architects are facing the question of design quality versus high-speed project throughput – architectural ethics or fatter profits, in other words.

And the most stunning example of that pressure was the 15 weeks that Norman Foster was given to supply completely detailed construction drawings for Beijing Airport – an absolutely ludicrous requirement for a project of this hyper-scale, and one that perhaps only Foster could have met without sacrificing design quality.

Aidan Potter, urban design director of John McAslan & Partners, reveres Bunshaft but questions SOM's stylistic and intellectual development since the Eighties. "To my generation," he said, "SOM was a somewhat remote American practice that sold out to post-modernism in the Eighties in order to compete – although you might argue that Norman Foster and Richard Rogers were themselves influenced by SOM when they both studied in the States, and that Foster's own office is modelled on the SOM machine of the Sixties and Seventies."

The eminent British architectural historian Ken Powell sees it slightly differently. "On the British scene," he said, "SOM were hugely important. Rogers and Foster were enormously impressed with them. It was an admiration based on the idea that you could create a world practice that was not only very big, but very good. But the distinctive thing about SOM was that it wasn't controlled from a central point. Architects such as Foster and Koolhaas came to high critical fame partly because they were identified as individuals, and because they want to go down in history as great creative artists, like Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies [van der Rohe]."

Rogers' and Foster's breakthrough buildings in the Seventies – the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Willis Faber headquarters in Ipswich respectively – were certainly more stunningly original than SOM's early offerings; and the pair have, from the outset, pursued more radically utopian or technically sophisticated approaches to architecture. But the pressures of project size, and volume, threatens these ideals. The great Swiss architect Jacques Herzog told me that he'd never let his practice get bigger than 300 staff, "because you lose control of design quality". If that's true, then most of today's big international architects are running on empty – particularly in the case of mega-projects.

SOM's structural engineering partner Bill Baker disputes this. He said projects in China, the Middle East and India had forced SOM to react in new ways to the design of buildings and urban masterplans. In China, for example, both the Tianjin Tanggu masterplan and the current Beijing Central Business District scheme required two years of complex preparatory discussion – right down to villager-level in the case of the former. "You go in there," said Baker, "and there's more than one mayor, and they all have different opinions. In the Seventies and Eighties in America, you'd be dealing with just one developer who'd run over the whole city."

And in a revealing aside, he said that "the biggest and the best don't usually go together". Indeed, SOM are particularly keen to emphasise that they're not quite the world's biggest architectural practice in 2010. "Several firms have gone into these huge growth modes," he added. "But we're a partnership. We're idiosyncratic."

Kent Jackson, SOM's London design director added: "Several forces drive design here. I mean, we're still arguing about who designed the Inland Steel building in Chicago in 1958!

"Some practices have a larger-than-life character that leads design. That can make designs harder to question. I don't think we want to be the largest practice. We want to be doing good work. The anonymity? You can grow within it."

And grow almost unnoticed. It's not widely known that, in the Sixties, SOM was among the first to attempt computer-aided design, and fast-track construction systems. Today, it is using genetic algorithms as a design tool, and pursuing purely theoretical projects such as the Great Lakes Masterplan, which is examining how to reverse the socially brutalising decline of once-wealthy cities such as Philadelphia. And it's still attempting to innovate in purely architectural terms: its exquisite Oakland Cathedral is a literally glittering example.

SOM may well imagine it is entering a new golden age of inquiry and experiment, recalling its key work in the Fifties and Sixties. But the stakes are higher now, and far more complex.

The key architectural experiments are no longer about individual buildings, but about the creation of new habitats that will define, or distort, existence in the 21st century. The ethics of architecture – the quality of its relationships with people and environments – is facing its greatest test. And the way the profession's super-practices respond will either encourage the pursuit of fertile new human agendas, or enhance the darker pathologies of corporatism and anonymity.

Architects who scramble to emulate SOM do so at Promethean commercial, ethical, and satirical risk. Just picture it, in grainy black-and-white: a massively bulked up Fred Goodwin, chunky and hirsute, climbing up the outside of SOM's 160-storey Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai. And in one hideously padded hand, he holds a shrieking figure – is it Fay Wray or Peter Morrison? – as the searchlights of architectural history, and potential hubris, fall across them.

Up in the air: The Burj Khalifa

Within a month of opening, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's $1.5bn (£960m) Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai – by far the world's tallest skyscraper – shut its doors due to electrical problems that, among other things, stopped lifts reaching its pinnacle, a viewing platform 2,717ft above the city.

But that glitch is a trifling issue; the building's structural bravado is the real story. The 160-storey leviathan is three-and-a-half times taller than the Swiss Re 'Gherkin' in London, and would even surpass a stacking of the Chrysler Building on top of the Empire State in New York.

Designed by SOM's Adrian Smith and Bill Baker, the Burj Khalifa carries the fundamental design genetics of the practice's legendary Sears Tower in Chicago. The Burj's three lobes rise in an irregularly stepped ascent, just like its great predecessor. This time, though, the lobes are rounded rather than squared, and not just for aesthetic reasons: the tower's irregular bulges break up wind-flows, preventing the acceleration of powerful vortexes that could cause excessive structural movement.

Critical reaction to the building has been vivid, and mixed. The British design commentator Stephen Bayley thinks it is grandiose architectural bunkum; The New Yorker's critic, Paul Goldberger, insists the "shimmering silver needle" has a magnetism that's lacking in almost every other super-tall building of our time. And The Architectural Review's Jeremy Melvin describes it as "an extraordinary cat's-cradle of contingency, opportunism, imagination, skill and sheer determination". The opinion of Joe Public will have to wait: the $27 lift-rides to the summit of the Burj Khalifa are on indefinite hold.

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