Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

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Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

224 S. Michigan Ave.
Suite 1000
Chicago, Illinois 60604
(312) 554-9090

Private Company
Incorporated: 1936
Operating Revenues: $80 million
Employees: 660
SICs: 8712 Architectural Services; 8711 Engineering Services

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill is one of the most prestigious and successful architectural and engineering firms in the United States. Many of the distinguished buildings in the Chicago Loop and those that grace the citys skyline, including the AT&T Corporate Center, the Brunswick Building, the Inland Steel Building, the John Hancock Center, and the tallest building in the world, the Sears Roebuck Tower, were built by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Well known for its clean, geometric designs, during the 1970s and 1980s the firm was the pre-eminent champion of a style of architecture that dominated the landscape of great cities worldwide. Unfortunately, when the style of architecture promulgated by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was eclipsed by other styles during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the company was hit hard by a decrease in new contracts.

While studying architecture and design in Paris during the late 1920s, Louis Skidmore met some of the architects who were planning the Century of Progress Exposition scheduled for 1933 in Chicago. Through his connections, Skidmore was appointed the chief architect for the exposition and hired Nathaniel Owings, his brother-in-law, to help him design the layout and buildings for the entire site.

After the exposition was over, the two men went their separate ways, but they joined together again in 1936 to establish a design firm in Chicago. Named Skidmore and Owings, the company began to draft designs for corporate clients they had met during the Century of Progress Exposition. By the end of the year, the firm had grown large enough for the partners to hire three employees to help with drafting new designs. In 1937 the firm opened an office in New York City, primarily to assist the American Radiator Company in designing a new office building. Using their corporate contacts and emphasizing the experience they had gained from the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, the two men won the contract to design the 1939-40 New York Worlds Fair. In 1939 engineer John Merrill joined the firm as partner, and the name was changed to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

By the early 1940s, the firm had developed its own architectural style, emphasizing clean lines and functional designs. It secured its most important contract during this timethe design of part of the facilities used in the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tennesseewhich catapulted the firm into national prominence. Skidmore and Owings also articulated the guiding principles upon which the firms architectural designs would be based; these included group projects, innovative designs, social change, and showmanship. By promoting these principles the firm grew rapidly, and after the war ended Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was selected to build such prestigious buildings as Lever House in New York City, the H. J. Heinz plant in Pittsburgh, and Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco.

The decade of the 1950s was the beginning of the firms golden era. By 1950 the firm had grown to include seven partners, one of whom was Gordon Bunshaft. Bunshaft had joined the firm in 1937, and by 1950 he had assumed leadership of the New York office with its staff of approximately 40 architects and designers. Under his direction, the firm began to win numerous large institutional and corporate contracts. The Lever House contract in New York propelled Skidmore, Owings & Merrill into corporate architecture and interior design, and the firm soon garnered a reputation as the leading exponent of an architectural style promulgated by Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.

With accolades heaped upon its distinctively modern designs, the firm became the first to receive an invitation to exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. By 1952 the company numbered 14 partners and over 1,000 employees, with offices in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon.

During the late 1940s, the firms wealthier corporate clients began to provide funds for such items as plants, sculptures, paintings, and various other decorative objects to provide an attractive atmosphere in their workplaces; they also began to request that Skidmore, Owings & Merrill purchase or design furniture that was particularly comfortable, so that employee morale would remain high and performance during long hours remain effective. Adequate lighting and suitable coloring also became concerns. With more and more clients requesting such services, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill became one of the first architectural firms to include interior design in its contracts, attending to space, lighting, color, furniture, and the overall effect of the enclosed environment.

The combination of architectural design and interior design was reflected in the companys projects during the 1950s. In association with a Turkish firm, Sedat Eldem, Skidmore, Owing & Merrill was contracted to design and decorate the Istanbul Hilton Hotel. Situated on a site overlooking the Bosporus Strait that separates the continents of Asia and Europe, the Istanbul Hilton was a combination of modern architectural and traditional design. The building was constructed of reinforced concrete, with a rigid rectilinear form and a rising facade of recessed balconies. In contrast, the interior of the hotel was embellished with rich and lushly textured materials and colors incorporating traditional Turkish motifs. Completed in 1955, the Istanbul Hilton was hailed as one of the great architectural and interior design achievements of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

Another landmark building designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was the Chase Manhattan Bank. The firm was commissioned to design both a sixty-story downtown headquarters and a smaller office located at 410 Park Avenue. The larger building would include the banks executive offices, and the smaller midtown office was to be used primarily for customer transactions.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill encouraged Chase to adopt a contemporary design for its offices and to incorporate art into the interior as an element integral to the design of the building. The curator of the Museum of Modern Art was brought in to provide advice in purchasing an art collection; the collection was not only well received by art critics, but also established a precedent for other corporate art collections. When the building was completed in 1959, the exterior was sparse and minimalist while the interior was rich in color and textureand one of the best art collections in the country.

During the 1960s, the company continued its innovative designs both for corporate and institutional commissions. In 1962 Skid-more, Owings & Merrill designed the buildings for the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In 1965 the firm designed the Brunswick Building in Chicago, the entire community at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the library and museum at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York. Perhaps the firms most distinctive architectural and interior design of this period was the Businessmens Assurance Company of America. Located in Kansas City, Missouri, and completed in 1963, the design was a strikingly successful mix of contrasting styles and periods, with cool, clear lines on the exterior of the building and a tapestry of Native American artifacts such as Apache baskets, Navaho jewelry, and old arrowheads decorating the interior. One of the notable awards received by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill during this decade was from the American Institute of Architects. Presented by the membership to the firm, it was the first award for architectural excellence presented by the Institute.

In the 1970s Skidmore, Owings and Merrill reached the peak of its influence. In 1970 and 1971 the firm designed the John Hancock Center in Chicago, Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago, One Shell Plaza in Houston, the Bank of America Building in San Francisco, the Library at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Library at the University of Texas in Austin. In 1974 the firm designed the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and the Sears Roebuck Tower in Chicago, the tallest building in the world. One of the most interesting commissions received during this period was the rehabilitation of one floor of a corporate complex in New York City, for the insurance company Alexander & Alexander. Skid-more, Owings & Merrill combined Queen Anne chairs with glass-topped dining tables to create a remarkable balance between old and new designs.

In 1977 the firm won an important commission to design the National Commercial Bank in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. The clients requested that the firm design one of its greatest buildings, and the result was not disappointing. The triangular twenty-seven story building, situated on a site directly overlooking the Red Sea, was a stunning merger of traditional Islamic elements with modern design and the capacity for modern electronic banking. The facade was interrupted by interlocking incisions and different elevations, giving the impression both of mystery and severity. The interior design was considered one of the best ever conceived by the firm. Furniture was designed in France, Italy, and the United States; carpets were purchased from Hong Kong; woodwork was commissioned from Germany; and fifteen different types of marble were used in decorating the interior, along with one hundred different kinds of fabrics and more than twenty-five types of wood. Individual executive offices were designed to have their own unique furniture, carpet, and wall coverings. Completed in 1982, this project was the last of the firms historic designs and signaled the end of an era. The founders had all retired, and Gordon Bunshaft also retired with the completion of the National Commercial Bank.

By the mid-1980s, architectural design and engineering were fully integrated with interior design, and the firm offered a wide range of services, including architectural design, civil engineering, electrical engineering, equipment planning, fire protection engineering, landscape architecture, mechanical engineering, plumbing engineering, site planning, space planning, and structural engineering. With such an inclusive list of services for clients, Skid-more, Owings & Merrill continued to grow, relying heavily on increasing commissions from outside the United States. In 1986 the firm opened its first overseas office, in London, and counted more than 1,400 employees in nine locations.

During the late 1980s, the firm designed the AT&T Corporate Center in Chicago and Rowes Wharf in Boston, two of the most impressive buildings of that era. With the advent of Postmodernism, however, Skidmore, Owings & Merrills dedication to Modernism began to seem outdated, and the company found itself struggling for lucrative commissions. New management was brought in to solve the problem, but a crisis in the commercial real estate market further exacerbated the firms declining fortunes.

Sales dropped precipitously from a total of $134 million in 1990 to $63 million by 1992, necessitating massive layoffs: between 1990 and 1992 employment dropped from 1,623 to 687.

In 1991 the position of chairman was assumed by David Childs, a long-time employee at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Within a short time, Childs had successfully steered the firm toward designing and building institutional projects, such as transportation facilities, airports, and religious buildings. Examples of his influence include the Chicago Transit Authority building, the Commonwealth Edison building, also located in Chicago, and the Islamic Center in New York.

Further Reading

Slavin, Maeve, Davis Allen: 40 Years of Interior Design at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, New York: Rizzoli, 1990.

Thomas Derdak