Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP

views updated

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP

224 S. Michigan Avenue
Suite 1000
Chicago, Illinois 60604-2505
Telephone: (312) 554-9090
Fax: (312) 360-4545
Web site:

Private Company
Operating Revenues: $73 million (2003 est.)
NAIC: 541310 Architectural Services; 541330 Engineering Services; 541990 All Other Professional, Scientific and Technical Services

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM), established in Chicago in the 1930s, attained standing as one of the most prestigious and successful architectural and engineering firms in the United States. SOM reached this stature by creating structures such as Chicago's Sears Tower and John Hancock Center, the Lever House in New York City, the U.S. Air Force Academy located in Colorado, and the Bank of America World Headquarters in San Francisco. Well known for its clean, geometric designs, during the 1970s and 1980s the firm was the preeminent 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. Redesigned itself, SOM rebounded and earned an unprecedented second Firm Award from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1996. The new millennium saw the firm working toward regaining its place as the designer of the world's tallest building.

Laying the Foundation: 1920s40s

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 193940 New York World's 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 firm's 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.

Golden Glow: 1950s60s

The decade of the 1950s was the beginning of the firm's golden era. By 1950 the firm had grown to include seven partners, one of whom was Gordon Bunshaft. Joining the firm in 1937, by 1950 Bunshaft 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 more than 1,000 employees, with offices in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon.

During the late 1940s, the firm's wealthier corporate clients began to provide funds for items such 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 company's projects during the 1950s. In association with a Turkish firm, Sedat Eldem, Skidmore, Owings & 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 60-story downtown headquarters and a smaller office located at 410 Park Avenue. The larger building would include the bank's executive offices, and the smaller mid-town 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 texture. It housed 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 Skidmore, 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 firm's most distinctive architectural and interior design of this period was the Businessmen's 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.

At the Summit: 1970s80s

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, then 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. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill combined Queen Anne chairs with glass-topped dining tables to create a remarkable balance between old and new designs.

Company Perspectives:

Founded in 1936, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) is one of the world's leading architecture, urban design, engineering, and interior architectural firms. SOM's sophistication in building technology applications and commitment to design quality have resulted in a portfolio that features some of the most important architectural accomplishments of this century.

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 27-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 15 different types of marble were used in decorating the interior, along with 100 different kinds of fabrics and more than 25 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 firm's 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, Skidmore, 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. Gross receipts peaked in 1989 at $157 million.

With the advent of Postmodernism, however, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's 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 firm's declining fortunes.

Back to the Design Table: 1990s

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 David Childs, a longtime employee at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, had appointed himself the first chairman of the board. Among the problems he faced were the pressures of debt repayment and legal battles with former partners. Adding insult to injury, the firm found itself in the unfamiliar position of having to go out and stump for business.

Childs moved to steer the firm toward designing and building institutional projects, such as transportation facilities, airports, and religious buildings, including the Chicago Transit Authority building, the Commonwealth Edison building, also located in Chicago, and the Islamic Center in New York. Projects on foreign ground furthered the firm's turnaround.

"By 1995, SOM appeared to be on the rebound, raking in revenues of $117 million and employing nearly 800 people. With offices in Chicago, New York, Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and London, SOM has rebuilt itself on a portfolio of high-rise projects in Asiaapproximately 43 percent of its work lies overseas, 26 percent across the Pacificas well as numerous large scale public and institutional commissions in the U.S.," wrote Bradford McKee for Architecture. SOM's successful redesign of itself earned a second Firm Award from the AIA in 1996.

While projects such as the 88-story Jin Mao tower in Shanghai and the Hong Kong Convention Center had helped SOM rebuild its status, a downturn in the Asian economy cut into its growing overseas business as the decade wound down. In an effort to boost its global operations, in 1999, SOM tapped an international manager from General Electric Co. (GE) to be its first president. Bringing in a leader from the business world was atypical to the industry, according to Crain's New York Business.

Once Again Reaching for the Heights: 200004

As the new millennium rolled in, the firm's New York City endeavors were gaining attention. Three projects alone, the Columbus Centre to house Time Warner and other notable organizations, the new Pennsylvania Station transportation facility, and a new building for the New York Stock Exchange, totaled nearly $2 billion in construction. Moreover, the sheer number of projects the firm had gained in the city was deemed remarkable. "Creating architecture in New York City is notoriously difficult, so SOM's involvement in such a great scope of work is no small feat," wrote Elizabeth Harrison Kubany for Architectural Record in March 2000.

In April 2001, Kenneth Brown, the GE executive hired as president just 19 months earlier, departed. Even though the firm had regained its footing on the architectural end, SOM's management system had been a work in progress since the downturn of the early 1990s.

Key Dates:

Louis Skidmore and Nathaniel Owings establish a design firm in Chicago.
The New York City office is opened.
John Merrill joins the firm, prompting a name change.
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill has 14 partners and more than 1,000 employees.
The completion of the Istanbul Hilton represents a feat of architectural and interior design for SOM.
SOM receives the first Firm Award presented by the American Institute of Architects (AIA).
SOM designs the Sears Roebuck Tower in Chicago, then the tallest building in the world.
The completion of the National Commercial Bank in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, marks the end of an era.
First overseas office is opened in London.
David Childs assumes the role of company chairman.
SOM receives its second Firm Award from AIA.
SOM is set to reclaim its status as designer of the world's tallest building.

In 2003, SOM was in the running to recapture its position as the designer of the world's tallest building. Both the Freedom Tower on the Ground Zero site in Manhattan and a tower in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates would exceed the height of Cesar Pelli's Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, which had surpassed the Sears Tower in 1998.

Childs had come under criticism for expressing his interest in rebuilding at the World Trade Center site not long after the towers fell on September 11, 2001. The Freedom Tower project itself would later prove to be a hotbed of controversy, complete with lawsuits, which continued into 2004.

As of December 2004, the Taipei 101 Tower, at 1,674 feet, ranked as the tallest occupied building. Toronto's CN Tower, at 1,815 feet, was the tallest freestanding structure. The Burj Dubai Tower, slated for completion in 2008, would reach nearly one-half mile to the sky at 2,624 feet.

Principal Competitors

Heery International, Inc.; HOK Group, Inc.; RTKL Associates Inc.

Further Reading

Angel, Karen, "Kenneth Brown, Who Recently Headed GE's Southeast Asia Effort, Plans to Ramp Up," Crain's New York Business, July 26, 1999, p. 15.

Dunlap, David, "Plans Reveal World's Tallest Tower, But Only 70 Stories Will Be Inhabited," New York Times, December 10, 2003, p. B1.

Gates, Charlie, "Tallest Tower Crown Back in SOM's Sights," Building Design, July 25, 2003, p. 7.

Iovine, Julie V., "The Invisible Architect," New York Times, August 31, 2003.

Kladko, Brian, "Building in Dubai to Tower Over N.Y.," The Record, December 13, 2004, p. A1.

Kubany, Elizabeth Harrison, "SOM Takes Manhattan," Architectural Record, March 2000, p. 68.

Lubell, Sam, "Liebeskind and Silverstein Reach 'Genius Fee' Settlement," Architectural Record, November 2004, p. 34.

McKee, Bradford, "SOM Retrenches," Architecture, May 1996, pp. 231+.

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

Ward, Jacob, "The Outsider," Architecture, April 2001, p. 60.

Thomas Derdak

update: Kathleen Peippo