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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Courtesy SOM

How to maintain cohesion in such a vast operation? For SOM today, what keeps the office’s disparate parts working in concert comes down to three terms, repeated again and again by Baker, which design director Eric Keune writes on a piece of paper and thumps emphatically with his pencil as he explains them: “Simplicity. Structural Clarity. Sustainability.” 

“The ideas are so broad that anyone can interpret them in any way they want,” Keune says. “Yet each one represents an idea, a phenomenon.” Using these watchwords as a “cudgel,” the architect says, SOM can steer clear of design “outliers” and preserve a certain consistency across the typological spectrum. However abstract, Baker’s broad-stroke principles not only work their way into SOM’s design process, but are manifested in the way the office’s projects actually look, constituting what Keune’s architect colleague Lucas Tryggestad calls “a visual ethic.” 

Courtesy Crystal CG/SOM

In Tianjin, China, the firm broke ground in 2012 on the Tianjin CTF Finance Centre tower, which, at 1,740 feet, will be among the world’s tallest buildings (though well short of the Burj). The structure’s tapering profile and flanged, white-trimmed sides lend it a passing resemblance to one of the United States’ now-retired space shuttles, and that aerodynamic quality is a testament to the intensive trial-and-error experimentation that produced the design. SOM’s innovative use of wind-tunnel technology has helped it discover new ways of bracing tall buildings, and CTF’s unique form will help cut down on the swirling eddies of air that often buffet the biggest skyscrapers. Giving a design that kind of emphatic structural legibility—while still accommodating a complex program—means bringing all of SOM’s departments into the process nearly at the same time. Engineer Brad Young says both his colleagues and their architectural counterparts “typically get involved at the earliest possible stage,” and there’s room for even some of the firm’s youngest associates to get involved, as 28-year-old engineer Matthew Parkolap did for CTF. With the firm for just three years, he helped coordinate the MEP and structural requirements of the building, and says the experience gave him “a more holistic view” of how SOM works. So synchronous is the firm’s design process on a big commission like Tianjian that, Baker jokes, “by the time it’s completed, everyone will think it’s theirs.” 

Courtesy MIR/SOM

Another upcoming SOM project that bears out the firm’s process and principles is a planned mixed-use community on the south side of Chicago. Situated on a massive 600-acre site formerly occupied by a major U.S. Steel mill, Chicago Lakeside sits right on the banks of Lake Michigan, and when complete will reunite a languishing urban neighborhood to the west with the scenic waterfront. “It’s the scale of a city,” explains Douglas Voigt, SOM’s director of urban design and planning, and he and his collaborators in the sustainability field have created a “net-positive water scenario” that will put more water back into the lake and a comprehensive electrical “micro-grid” that will maximize energy efficiency. The project is still many years from completion—and contingent upon numerous political and financial issues—but even at this early date the other members of the SOM team are already starting to find ways to bring in the structural and formal integrity that will round out the ecological component. “We’ve worked with Bill and his team to understand how you build within this context, and we’ve been able to find ways to innovate,” Voigt says. “There might even be a new way to develop here.” The blank-slate site, with its treacherous, landfill-based substrate, could make it the perfect proving ground for some of the more daring new structural proposals emerging from Baker’s engineering contingent. 

One such proposal Voigt mentions is the Timber Tower, a speculative building system first advanced by SOM engineer Ben Johnson and developed in collaboration with firm-wide practice manager Dave Horos. A 42-story tower, 80 percent of which is composed of wooden members, the concept may seem just a nifty thought exercise. But with Baker’s encouragement, efforts are underway to build a demonstration model sometime in the next several years. Lightweight, strong, and carbon sequestering, the idea of a high-rise in lumber is exactly the kind of out-of-the-box solution Baker encourages his fellow engineers and architects to seek out. “Bill just has that curiosity,” says architect Arathi Gowda, who’s seen it firsthand in her work with Sustainable Engineering Studio staff. But it’s among his fellow engineers that Baker really gives free rein to his structural imagination. Once a week, he leads a mixed crowd of mostly younger colleagues he calls the “Research Gang.” Not quite a lecture series, but more like ricocheting digressions organized around a notional theme, the Research Gang meetings wander from abstruse mathematical formulae to architectural anecdotes and back again. It’s emblematic of Baker’s whole managerial style. “Bill runs the engineering side like an academic undertaking,” Keune says. 

Courtesy SOM

During a recent session, Baker punctuates his lesson with stories of SOM lore. When Chicago’s famous John Hancock Center was being built, he says, the builders discovered the caissons weren’t laid right, and the structure might have collapsed but for a canny surveyor. (There were problems with the construction methods used by the contractor for pouring the caissons. An SOM engineer discovered it during a routine surveying of the building.) Returning to his main subject, Baker works through an equation, which he first happened upon as a young engineer, for calculating structural deflection. His solution, he explains, did away with a lot of the smaller, chunkier arithmetic an engineer would otherwise have to perform. “If you do have to do all that, you just end up a technician,” he says. 

The way he uses that word as a pejorative seems to indicate the direction Baker wants his team to go—away from the rote and staid, toward the artful and expressive. “One doesn’t invent a new architecture every Monday morning,” Mies once famously said—and certainly what Baker and company appear to be doing isn’t that. As compared to sometime architect collaborators like Frank Gehry and artists like James Turrell, SOM seems content not to develop too definite a set of formal or conceptual signatures, even if that exposes it to criticism for being too bland or commercial. But the earnestness of Baker’s inquisitive pragmatism—and his colleagues’ singular ability to act together in that spirit—are what’s helped the office to adapt and thrive in an era as different from the modernist reductivism of its early years as from the postmodernist interval of the last couple of decades of the twentieth century. With so many younger studios today looking to establish durable, collaborative practices not overly dependent on stylistic branding, it’s curious to think that perhaps they could do worse than to look to one of the biggest and best-known brands of them all.

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