Well-Oiled Machine

Led by Bill Baker, the engineering team at SOM Chicago is reshaping the form and function of buildings.

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For a relatively large practice, SOM Chicago rarely feels like one. Pictured here are the several dozen architects and engineers that make up the firm, including representatives from two in-house groups: the Chicago Structures Group and so-called "Research Gang," under the direction of "maker" Bill Baker.

Photography by Tim Klein, unless otherwise noted.

Frank Lloyd Wright called them the “Three Blind Mies.” Louis Skidmore, Nathaniel Owings, and John O. Merrill were the architectural troika whose namesake firm—founded in Chicago in the mid-1930s—became something like the Julia Child of postwar design, delivering European sophistication to middle America at midcentury. Through hundreds of buildings in cities all across the country (and, later, around the world) the office turned the stringent aesthetic of German master builder Ludwig Mies van der Rohe into an architectural metonym for big business. Whether you look at rows of sleek glass skyscrapers and see grace and economy, or only the “thousand blind windows” of Allen Ginsberg’s monstrous “Moloch,” it’s no stretch to say that you have Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) to thank for them. 

But while its founding partners—to say nothing of Mies and Wright—are all long gone, SOM as a force on the design scene remains strong. The firm’s acronym has always been better known than the men behind it. “It’s a group practice, an assemblage of architects and engineers,” says John Zils, a structural engineer who’s been with SOM since 1966. “That was the concept of the firm when it started.” What’s sustained SOM through nearly eight decades isn’t the spirit of its progenitors, but its ability to attract an extraordinary roster of talent—a succession of prominent engineers and designers who’ve guided it through the changing currents of the architecture world. From the 1950s, when design partner Gordon Bunshaft first brought the International Style to New York with his scheme for Lever House, to the 1970s, when engineer Fazlur Rahman Kahn’s Sears Tower snatched the title of world’s tallest building, SOM’s assorted animating geniuses have shaped not only the face of the firm, but the development of architecture in our time. 

The structural and civil engineer Bill Baker in his office at SOM Chicago. Baker is considered the "leading light" of the firm.

The heir to that line today is William F. Baker, SOM structural and civil engineering partner—and in many ways the guiding light of the flagship Chicago office—the man whose buttressed-core concept made possible Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the current global record holder for building height. The unassuming, bespectacled, 60-year-old Baker hails from a small town in Missouri and projects a slightly rarefied Midwestern sensibility, his plainspoken modesty spiked with wonkish enthusiasm for structural esoterica. “Bill is obsessed with truth and purity in the design process,” says Mark Nagis, an architect at the firm. “In order for Bill to be satisfied with a project, it has to be completely clear.” Expounding on Michell trusses, awning systems, the form of a nautilus shell and the science of wind tunnels, Baker makes engineering seem less a matter of nuts-and-bolts precision and more a speculative, adventurous endeavor. “Engineering is an evolving profession,” Baker says. “People think we’re done, but we’re a long way from done. What’s the optimal shape for a bridge? We’re still trying to discover that.” 

  

Bill Baker and his colleagues in SOM Chicago keep their offices like mini museums—stacked with papers, models, drawings, renderings, and prototypes. Each space is open to the main floor, inviting staffers to stop in and see what’s up.

The process of discovery is one in which Baker and his senior colleagues have managed to enlist practically every employee of SOM Chicago’s 300-plus staff. Encompassing architects, structural and MEP engineering, urban planners, interior designers, and sustainability experts, Baker’s team is a multidisciplinary crew that strives to work as a single organic entity. The practice’s three floors in the historic, Daniel Burnham–designed Railway Exchange Building—on South Michigan Avenue across from Grant Park—ring around a central atrium, unencumbered by dividing walls, making it possible to see nearly every workstation from any point near the ledge. Walking through the space, Baker points out the purpose-built shelving system and small “kindergarten tables” that allow users to change the interior layout at will, creating different arrangements for different work groups. “It’s pretty fluid here,” Baker explains. “Everyone at every level talks to everyone at every level.” 

A row of models that lines the shelves of the SOM Chicago office.

For a relatively large practice, SOM Chicago rarely feels like one. When a lunch meeting lets out early in one of the conference rooms upstairs, employees on the lower level are quick to spot the leftovers as they’re being carted out to reception, and arrive instantly to glean the remains of the quinoa salad. 

Along with his fellow partners, Baker is eager to keep things this way, pointing out that the firm has been careful not to over-hire or spread itself too far on the vertical axis into areas like real estate development or construction management. “That’s been an active and ongoing discussion,” says the engineer. “But we think it distracts from focusing on design.” The less-is-more ethic is certainly in line with the firm’s Miesian heritage, but it may come as something of a surprise to longtime observers. SOM’s reputation, after all, is as an architectural behemoth, a factory that turns out buildings on a massive scale using a corporate business model mirroring its corporate clientele. This view isn’t altogether unjustified. Seen in combination with its ten offices in five countries on three continents, SOM is indeed huge, capable of working on dozens of projects at once. Being the namesake of three somewhat obscure (and, by now, very dead) people doesn’t help, and the collaborative spirit that’s kept an engineer like John Zils on board for nearly his entire career can sometimes make it appear from the outside that the firm lacks a unifying identity. No one in the office even knows for certain how many projects SOM has completed in its 78-year history (though they estimate more than 10,000).

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