Architecture of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1984-1996
Written by Introduction by Detlef Mertins
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, founded in 1936, is one of the largest and most influential architecture firms in the world. SOM has long been known for innovation, experimentation, design excellence, and technical mastery, for an abiding interest in the contributions that buildings can make to the life of cities, and for a collaborative approach that extends to all aspects of the design and construction processes. This volume presents work from the 1980s and 1990s.
Since its founding in the 1930s, SOM has pioneered an architectural practice that is equally attentive to the currents of modern design and the demands of the marketplace. The early years were devoted to developing the International Style in the United States; the middle of the century to collaborations with legendary patrons such as Lever Brothers, John Hancock, Sears Roebuck, and Yale University; and the later years to charting a course for architecture at a time when modernism was beginning to embrace contextualism and local cultures.
In the years 1984–1996, SOM continued to develop the skills for which it had become known—high standards of design, imaginative structural solutions, exceptional detailing, city making on a grand scale, expertise in managing large and complex sites—and also addressed new areas of design and practice. A contextual modernism—one attentive to climate, topography, and the regional vernacular—a focus on restoration and reuse, and an expansion of international work came to the fore in a time of great social and economic change. In his introduction, Detlef Mertins traces the firm’s history in parallel with this restructuring, a growth in real estate development and financial markets that fundamentally changed how buildings were commissioned and built.
Rowes Wharf in Boston, the USG and AT&T Buildings in Chicago, and Worldwide Plaza and the Islamic Cultural Center in New York are among the buildings that represent the firm’s contextualism and inventive interpretation of historic precedents. At the same time, Exchange House in London demonstrates SOM’s continued commitment to modernism and technological expression. Many projects, such as Enerplex in Plainsboro, New Jersey, and the Pacific Bell Administrative Complex in San Ramon, California, broke new ground in strategies for long-term energy conservation. Among the firm’s important restorations of this era are the Civic Opera House in Chicago and the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco, as well as a series of historic train stations along the Northeast Corridor.
International works—the National Commercial Bank in Saudi Arabia, Ayala Tower One/Philippine Stock Exchange, the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center, and especially Canary Wharf in London, an entire district based on a new model of urban planning—demonstrate SOM’s coordinated expertise in planning, transportation and civil engineering, and landscape design in an era of globalization. Finally, the most recent works, especially the landmark Jin Mao Tower in China, point the way to SOM’s work of the twenty-first century: diverse, contextual, urbane, and populist.
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