Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM)

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About Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM)

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Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM)Formed in 1936, SOM is almost single-handedly responsible for a model of practice that provides accommodation for the globalized corporation, wherever that might be in the world. It has produced buildings that remain unforgettable landmarks – the US’s tallest building, the Sears Tower in Chicago (1974), springs to mind as an example – whatever their quality as pieces of architecture.

Rather than focusing on the ego of a single, named architect, SOM was founded as a collective of designers. This idea was perhaps laudable but did not work. If you know that SOM designed the famous, elegant, Miesian Lever House in New York (1952) or the Beinecke Library at Yale University (1963), then you probably know that the partner in charge was Gordon Bunshaft, the most prominent creative force behind SOM in the 1950s and 1960s and winner of the Pritzker Prize in 1988. Likewise, you might even know that it was Walter Netsch who designed the Colorado Springs Air Force Chapel (1962), and Bruce Graham who was responsible for the classic cross-braced skyscraper that is the John Hancock Center in Chicago (1970). Suddenly, the anonymity of the SOM initials starts to fracture.

Despite SOM’s staggering commercial success, there are some indisputable dogs in their portfolio, such as the corporate Postmodernism of the Quaker Oats Building in Chicago (1986) and the sub-Cesar Pelli extruded section of the Lutheran Brotherhood Building in Minneapolis (1983). However, the classics are all there. Lever House is perhaps rivalled only by Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in New York as the most elegant of 1950s skyscrapers. The Beinecke Library, which had the most expensive facade ever constructed when it was completed in 1963, made of thin alabaster panels in a concrete honeycomb structure, stands today in the heart of the retro architectural melange of Yale University, a mysterious object illuminated internally by dappled light – a truly fantastic architectural experience. SOM’s body of work is a palimpsest of mainstream architectural history.