Photography by Jeff Sciortino (left) and Anna Knott (right)
Ross Wimer, Tom Kerwin, and Adrian Smith
>> A fresh façade: at SOM in Chicago, the design partner Ross Wimer, left, and Tom Kerwin, a managing partner, have moved to center stage following the unceremonious departure of Adrian Smith, right, arguably the firm’s architectural star.

Six years ago, Donald Trump set his sights on a stretch of the Chicago River where, he boasted, he would build the tallest building in the world. Realities such as terrorism and timid bankers forced him to scale down his plans, but as the project moved forward, it was hardly surprising that Trump chose Adrian Smith of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill as his architect. No architect has a thicker portfolio of well-loved skyscrapers; no firm has its feet set more firmly in the real world.

Trump and Smith made an odd match. Whereas Trump the tycoon is brash, Smith the architect is reserved. But any fears that Chicago would get a monstrosity were eased by Smith’s-and Skidmore’s-participation. And though the early plans for Trump Tower were predictably gargantuan, the final design was ultimately modified-to please the mayor, to suit the neighbors, even to stroke the critics.

Trump was frequently on the phone from New York through these phases, talking about curtain walls and spires. But as progressively more palatable renderings were made public, the skyscraper became closely identified with Smith, who was born in Chicago and graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

So this past fall, just as Trump Tower was going up, it came as a shock to hear that Adrian Smith was leaving Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-and that the parting had been unpleasant. Life, as it turned out, had been rocky for a while at SOM, the most famous acronym in architecture. Smith had been with the firm for 39 years, and a partner since 1980. His position as senior design partner in the Chicago office for 15 years had coincided with some very prosperous times at the firm-and those good times continue to this day.

Tensions, however, rose to a boil about four years ago when Gordon Gill, Smith’s closest protégé in Chicago, was passed over for a promotion to partnership. Some months later, a move by partners primarily in SOM’s New York office effectively forced Smith into the role of “consulting partner,” a position, he says, that gave him little say in the governing of the firm. Then, last October, a majority of SOM’s 30 partners-who are spread out among the principal offices in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco-agreed to show him the door when he declined to accept a new contract.

Sitting in the large and sun-filled living room of his Mount Vernon–like home in Lake Forest, Smith recounts these events. He takes pains to explain it all in conciliatory terms, saying that giving older partners the boot and getting young architects into the game is not all that uncommon at his former firm. “One of the primary reasons that SOM has lasted for 70 years is that it has had a policy of renewing itself at the partnership level,” is how he puts it. Yet Smith doesn’t mind adding that he was hurt and baffled by how it happened. “I have a history of being a big rainmaker for this firm,” he says. Now, replacing him in the office have come designers who, he says, “have no connection with Chicago-and never have had any connection with Chicago.”

Smith discusses all this with some sadness, but also with clarity and even detachment, almost as if it had happened to someone else. But after nearly two hours, he abruptly ends the interview. He would be happy to talk about the old firm again, he says, but just now he has another meeting. He hops into his German sports car and races downtown, where he has opened a new architectural firm-and a new chapter in his life.

Based in an old SOM building at the corner of Clark and Monroe streets, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture will concentrate on “sustainable” or energy-efficient structures, which Smith and others regard as the next big thing in architecture. There is little doubt that they will be competing against SOM for clients, and Smith confesses that he is unsure how it will play out. For his part, Trump, in an October article in the Chicago Sun-Times, suggested that his future loyalty as a client might be “torn” between Smith and SOM. And the Trump Tower? It remains an SOM project.

Seated stiffly in a conference room overlooking Michigan Avenue, Jeffrey McCarthy, SOM’s managing partner in charge of the Chicago office, shows impatience with the question of Adrian Smith even before it’s asked. He wants to hear nothing of “the changing of the guard at SOM,” and though it has been just a week since the Skidmore-Smith divorce went public, McCarthy dismisses it as old news. “We have ten partners here in Chicago,” he says. “There are extraordinary stories about each one of the ten.”

McCarthy is right-and not just about Chicago. SOM has big things on the drawing boards in all of its studios-its principal offices in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, and its smaller ones in Washington and London. Its revolutionary “zero-energy” Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, China-designed by Smith and Gill before their departure and scheduled to be finished in 2009-will aim to generate as much energy, through solar, wind, and geothermal power, as it consumes. SOM won an international competition to design the new NATO headquarters in Brussels (due for completion in 2011), and, in the relentless glare of the media spotlight, SOM’s New York office is refining its design for Freedom Tower on the site of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, a project of stratospheric symbolism.

As far as Smith’s departure is concerned, his former colleagues insist that it is inside-boardroom stuff and no one’s business outside the partnership. But as the folks at SOM like to point out, it is one of the largest, one of the oldest, and one of the most powerful architecture firms in the United States. The firm helped shape modern architecture in the 20th century, and the current partners are determined to do the same in the 21st. So as SOM travels the world exporting American architecture, the things that its architects do, and the way they behave, are no more a private matter than Millennium Park-for which SOM served as master planner-is the exclusive pleasure garden of the donors who funded its construction.

So what exactly is behind the recent shakeup at SOM? At the simplest level, it might be attributed to a power play by the firm’s New York partners. In candid moments, some partners admit that it was an attempt to open doors for younger designers. On a loftier but related plane, it was driven by a sense that a new modernism was fast evolving in architecture-which the firm needs to embrace if it is to remain at center stage.

Whatever the motives behind the move, it certainly wasn’t executed rashly. Few architectural firms today have such a long history-and none have moved forward so deliberately-as SOM. Since its founding in 1936, the firm has amassed a wide-ranging portfolio that includes Lever House in New York, the John Hancock Center and Sears Tower in Chicago, and the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai. No other firm has mediated so well between the pressures of economics and design, not to mention raging egos and clueless clients. Few are currently so successful as SOM, with record income in 2005-$160 million, according to an educated guess by one person close to the firm-which was (again a guess) a 10 percent jump over 2004. The firm’s 30 partners frequently expect six-figure bonuses-and probably will for the foreseeable future.

From the outside looking in, Skidmore, Ownings & Merrill seems to have it all, and not just money. “It’s a place of prodigious design talent,” says Donna Robertson, dean of the College of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “But it’s also a firm that is so good at execution. You can’t really execute great projects without great business skills”-a lesson she hammers into IIT’s students, not least by having SOM partners lecture and teach there.

At the same time, “there has been a longtime commitment to design excellence,” says Stuart Cohen, an Evanston architect and author, and a leading observer-historian of Chicago’s 19th- and early 20th-century architecture. Cohen is addressing the firm’s role as America’s heir to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and avatar of 20th-century modernism. SOM’s biggest projects are most often for business clients, “but it’s never just commercial work,” he says. “There’s always a major concern for the quality of the product.”

Some notable buildings from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Photography courtesy of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Esto Photographics
Lever House, New York City
1 Lever House, New York City (1952): The strikingly modern aristocrat of postwar corporate headquarters 2 Inland Steel Building, Chicago (1958): Stainless-steel playfulness, rather than the stark solemnity of a Mies edifice 3 John Hancock Center, Chicago (1970): With its structurally expressive X-bracing and tapered profile, a classic among supertall buildings 4 Kitt Peak National Observatory, near Tucson, Arizona (1962): Could have been created only by a designer-Myron Goldsmith-who was an architect, engineer, and artist 5 Beinecke Library, Yale University, New Haven (1963): Elegant form follows function as translucent panels admit indirect light.

These characteristics run deep in the culture of SOM, as does a belief in the power of collaboration among many professionals. Says the architect Dan Wheeler: “It’s an umbrella-like firm that embraces all different disciplines,” from planning to design to structural engineering and MEP (mechanical, electrical, and plumbing). Wheeler worked at SOM before opening his own small firm in 1987, and he speaks in mostly positive terms about what must feel like architecture’s 900-pound gorilla. He does acknowledge that design by committee might make the firm “more or less resistant to the startling idea.”

SOM is likewise resistant to “star-chitects,” designers whose personal prestige exceeds that of the buildings they design. Smith had come close to achieving that status; indeed, there were rumblings that he could be a less than democratic patriarch, which made him a target for ambitious partners eager to move up.

This would square with the view of Joseph Rosa-the John H. Bryan Curator of Architecture and Design at the Art Institute of Chicago-who thinks that SOM’s longevity has depended upon its ability to move people around, up, and (in the fullness of time) out. “Whenever you get a big studio system, getting young talent to the top is always difficult,” he says. At SOM, upward mobility is part of the culture. “If there’s bad blood or stress under the umbrella,” Rosa adds, “perhaps that brings out the best in all of them.”

“I think there’s always been as much competition within SOM as there is between SOM and the outside world,” says Nicholas Adams, author of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill: The Experiment Since 1936 (Electa, 2006). As Adams writes, intramural rivalries go back to the very founding of the firm in Chicago 70 years ago. Louis Skidmore and Nathaniel Owings met after Skidmore became engaged to Owings’s sister. Eventually, they opened a new firm designed to serve business clients. “But they didn’t get along,” Adams says bluntly. “It was a very dysfunctional relationship.”

The partners coped by putting 800 miles between them, with Owings remaining in Chicago and Skidmore opening an office in New York. There were good business reasons for the New York–Chicago divide, of course, as the firm found plenty of work in both places. But it was definitely easier for the meticulous Skidmore to bear the aggressive and explosive Owings from a distance. (John Merrill, a mild-mannered engineer, figured little in the politics of the firm.)

Many organizations would wilt under such conflicting personalities, not to mention the “martini fog” that Adams says hung over both offices in the early days. But this one flourished, despite, or maybe because of, simmering distrust. Both offices were also fortunate to hire future partners of talent who assumed-and competed for-responsibility.

Hired by the New York office in 1937, Gordon Bunshaft quickly became the firm’s most important designer, a position that was based on his command of modern architecture and not his tact with colleagues, whose work he could critique viciously. “There was no question that he [Bunshaft] was the star,” said the late Chicago-based partner Ambrose Richardson in an oral history. “And there was a great deal of jealousy between Nat [Owings] and Gordon.” Owings continued as a supersalesman of Bunshaft’s work, but antipathy persisted until the end. Owings died in 1984 and Bunshaft in 1990, two years after he won the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

Bunshaft called most of the shots on design in the early years, but Chicago became coequal in the hands of William Hartmann, who took over the office when Owings went to San Francisco in 1951. Under Hartmann, the Chicago office became noted for cool efficiency, superior engineering, and deft political connections. Hartmann brokered, for example, the artistic marriage between Mayor Richard J. Daley and Pablo Picasso, which brought the signature sculpture to what is now Daley Plaza.

With many hearts, many hands, and many egos, SOM grew. The firm’s modern style echoed that of Mies van der Rohe, but without Mies’s brooding and his potential for client conflict. SOM’s public image lined up with The Organization Man, the classic 1956 book that explained how getting ahead meant conforming to the corporate goal. “They [SOM] spoke the postwar language of efficiency,” says Adams. Much of its work was faceless as a line of Sears stores on Long Island. But SOM also became synonymous with corporate America at its best with masterpieces such as Lever House (1952) and the Inland Steel Building in the Loop (1958).

In Chicago in the 1960s, two more icons got under way, the John Hancock Center (completed 1970) and Sears Tower (1974), showing that SOM and Chicago were a very good match. The firm equaled Mayor Daley for power and ambition, and its Chicago office was blessed with great talent. It had the designers Walter Netsch and Bruce Graham-both of whom worked on the Inland Steel Building-and the engineers Fazlur Khan and Myron Goldsmith (who was also an architect, and Mies’s most important protégé). All the synergies were working-and there was the ineffable benefit of the relationship between Netsch and Graham, who hated each other.

“Hate” may be too strong a word. Yet stories of their simmering competition are legion. They were working on different ends of the practice, Graham on skyscrapers and Netsch on educational buildings. But there was still the small issue of credit for Inland Steel, for example. There was also the fact that Graham’s skyscraper designs were a big profit center for the firm, and Netsch’s complex and detailed school buildings much less so. In any case, in the 1970s, everyone in the office knew when a partner meeting had adjourned: they heard a door slam. Usually it was Netsch storming out. (Heart problems-and office politics-forced Netsch into retirement in 1979, though he remained active as a consultant and also served as president of the Chicago Park District; Graham retired as an SOM partner in 1989, when he moved to Florida and started a new firm with his wife.)

These memories were naturally revived as the separation of Adrian Smith from the firm approached its dénouement last year. One could say that Smith deserved better. It was he, for example, who got the firm over its roughest patch ever in the 1980s, when minimalist modern architecture-SOM’s stock-in-trade-was falling out of favor. While other firms were turning to postmodernism, SOM was creating Chicago’s graceless Apparel Center (1977) and unloved One Magnificent Mile (1983). Even before that, in 1973, the critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in The New York Times that attacking SOM was “a little like attacking the Pope. But . . . there has been an evolution of design needs and philosophy that has somehow passed the firm right by.”

By the late 1980s, SOM was the great shrinking monolith, and there were questions as to whether it would survive. Whereupon Smith saved the day with buildings that some called postmodernist, after the current fashion, but which he called “contextualist,” responding to their sense of place. Though he had many commissions, in Chicago Smith is best known for NBC Tower (1989), much praised for its subtle references to the city’s Jazz Age skyscrapers. In Boston he did Rowes Wharf with its Georgian influences, and in Shanghai, his Jin Mao Tower has a pagoda-like profile on an otherwise Jetsons-like skyline. And now there is Trump Tower, with its setbacks and “flatiron”-like profile evoking a romanticized past as it takes shape along the Chicago River.

Photography courtesy of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Timothy Hursley and Gartner Photography
Jin Mao Tower, Shanghai

6 Jin Mao Tower, Shanghai (1999): A soft, pagoda-like silhouette on the planet’s most aggressively modern skyline 7 Sears Tower, Chicago (1974): SOM architect Bruce Graham said the building’s form was inspired by the way the first few cigarettes popped out when he tapped a new pack of Luckies. 8 Trump Tower, Chicago (ongoing): This glassy high-rise evokes the early skyscraper era-and Trump has promised a curtain wall to die for. 9 World Trade Center, New York City (ongoing): This replacement for a building destroyed as collateral damage on 9/11 showcases David Childs’s skill as both a designer and an urban planner. 10 Burj Dubai, Dubai City (ongoing): Designed by Adrian Smith, this building in the United Arab Emirates is due to top out as the world’s tallest.

But architectural fashion is changing again, moving toward a preference for skyscrapers that cast sculptural forms against the sky. SOM did not pioneer this new style, but it hopes to define it-and in a big way-with Manhattan’s Freedom Tower, designed by David Childs, a consulting partner with SOM in New York. Battles over that design have been ferocious and public, and Childs became known as an architectural warrior, promoting his ideas and design over those of Daniel Libeskind, who had originally been chosen to create the master plan for the World Trade Center site.

Smith’s dismissal from SOM may have been directly related to Childs’s ambition. “It may be that they [his partners] saw my architecture as something of the past and not of the future at SOM,” says Smith. And as Smith was put out to pasture, essentially by Childs’s allies in New York, it is worthwhile recalling a remark made in 1991 by Walter Netsch in Chicago. David Childs, he said, was “more suave than Bruce Graham and twice as vicious.”

Today, observers of SOM are watching Ross Wimer’s career with interest. Wimer, along with another young architect, Peter Ruggiero, came from New York in 2003 to support the Chicago office in design-leadership roles. Featured recently on the cover of Architect mag-azine, Wimer has big projects on the boards just now, including Infinity Tower in Dubai, which will spiral skyward within sight of Smith’s Burj Dubai (another SOM building under construction and due to top out as the world’s tallest). Though there is definitely pressure on Wimer to perform, he remains relaxed and winning, seemingly unfazed by the expectations of other people.

Only 45, Wimer has worked at a high level all his career. He is a graduate of Yale University and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and, before Skidmore, he worked in Korea on large commercial projects and in New York for the firm of Gwathmey Siegel, where he helped design the addition to the Guggenheim Museum.

Entering SOM’s New York office in 1995, Wimer began as a senior designer. “The touchstone for me goes back to what are the classic projects,” says Wimer. “Can a building have a presence like Inland Steel or the Hancock building?”

Another SOM touchstone is design by collaboration, and Wimer has performed at a high level in this aspect as well. His star at the firm rose swiftly as he worked with Childs and Roger Duffy, another powerful partner in New York. Now a partner himself and based in Chicago, Wimer and his prospects for future success are tied to his relations with his colleagues here, not least the managing partner handling the business end of his projects (each SOM project is led by a design partner and a managing partner). For Wimer, that person is usually Tom Kerwin, 43, who is as serious and tightly wound as Wimer is relaxed.

Kerwin joined the firm in Chicago in 1986. He was trained as an architect, but his superiors recognized instantly a deft hand in administration. Kerwin’s specialty is the Asian market, where, in one example of how things work, he knew for some years of land in Shanghai that has since become the site for a multiuse project called North Bund Plaza. Kerwin stayed in touch with city officials and financiers. When a developer for the site surfaced, a design competition was organized-competitions are usually mandatory in China-and SOM predictably won.

North Bund is a prime example of SOM’s “collective competence,” as the collaborative approach is sometimes called. Beginning last year, a team of as many as 60 SOM employees in Chicago have been working on the project, including architects, engineers, and other professionals, each contributing to what they all hope will be the soundest and most innovative design possible. The process isn’t unique to SOM, but it would be hard to find another firm where so many different people were involved so early in the process of deciding what a building was going to look like.

SOM talks collaboration constantly, “but this is where it [the process of design] kind of happens,” says Bill Baker, the partner in charge of structural engineering, referring to the many tables occupying open spaces around the office. There people sit and brainstorm, working out projects to the smallest details. “Everybody chimes in,” explains Baker.

As an example, Baker describes how the North Bund design began when a young architect working for Wimer built a model of a tower with roundish undulating edges. “It sort of morphs as it rises, in that what was the side becomes the corners, and what was the corners becomes the sides,” says Baker.

From that original model, the design will continue to evolve through many iterations, reflecting the input of all who worked on it. It’s the SOM way to collaborate intensely, says Baker. Both the Sears and Hancock buildings, for example, resulted from the acknowledged collaborations between the architect Bruce Graham and the engineer Fazlur Khan. Credit for some of the firm’s other buildings is more up in the air. “We still argue about who did Inland Steel,” Baker says. “If it’s a good building, everybody claims it.”

Ask Jeff McCarthy, SOM’s managing partner for Chicago, to define the firm, and he replies in corporate-speak. “We are global,” he observes. “We are accountable.” But then comes a remark that cuts to the core: “In many ways,” he says, “we embodied the ethos of corporate America.”

Different architects embody different things. Mies tried and largely succeeded in capturing the spirit of the industrial age; Frank Gehry shows the abstract (perhaps unfathomable) potential of the computer. But as McCarthy noted, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill embodies the ethos of the corporation. What’s that? It depends.

Look at Lever House: it’s handsome and well proportioned. Look at the Sears Tower: it’s muscular and “big shouldered.” Look at NBC Tower: it’s a touch romantic.

But looking deeper into the soul of this organization, another word keeps coming up: “efficiency.” Beneath the surface you will definitely find steroidal egos and internecine struggles (not unlike boardrooms everywhere). But when SOM presents itself to the outside world, the message is efficiency, streamlined operations, buildings signed not by prima donnas but by three safely dead partners, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

SOM’s brand identity gives the customer what he or she wants. Among the long and current list of happy clients is Patrick G. Ryan, chairman and CEO of Chicago 2016, the committee preparing the bid for Chicago to host the Summer Olympics in nine years. It has been one-stop shopping for the committee so far, as it works with Ross Wimer, Tom Kerwin, and Phil Enquist, SOM’s esteemed partner in charge of planning.

Ryan, the founder and executive chairman of the insurance giant Aon, has been pleased by SOM’s unselfishness. “They have been instrumental in bringing other great architectural minds into the process,” Ryan says. (Ben Wood, whose firm revamped Soldier Field, and Stanley Tigerman, who worked unhappily at SOM early in his illustrious career, have been mentioned as collaborators.) “SOM’s architects have a healthy respect for the rest of the architectural fraternity,” Ryan says.

And out in New York, knowing what the client wants got David Childs this far on Freedom Center. Childs knew that New York City craved a symbol for Ground Zero; he also knew that the client, the developer Larry Silverstein, needed a design that would pay back the billions he had invested in the World Trade Center before September 11th. No surprise, then, that Childs prevailed over the starchitect Libes-kind, who won the public competition for the project but has been overshadowed by SOM ever since.

In a recent interview, Silverstein spoke respectfully of Libeskind but couldn’t praise Childs highly enough. Among other things, he found the SOM architect “a talented and delightful person.” The irony is that while most of his colleagues respect Childs and recognize his talent, hardly anyone else would call him delightful.

This is not a dig at Childs-or anyone else. Rather, it recognizes that architecture is a complex arena, and its best practitioners are many-layered personalities. It’s these layers that emerge when you dig around Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-a complex and even byzantine organization that with some regularity designs buildings that define our place and time.