Parting Company

It was a shock to the architectural world when Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) partner Adrian Smith announced last October that he was leaving the company after almost 40 years to start his own practice with fellow ex-SOM designer Gordon Gill. As architect of the Trump International Hotel & Tower, in Chicago; the Jin Mao Tower, in Shanghai; and the United Arab Emirates’ Burj Dubai—slated to be the world’s tallest building—Smith has designed many of the lofty structures reshaping skylines across the globe. At SOM’s Chicago office he held almost every conceivable position, from student intern to CEO; most recently he served for three years as design consulting partner. He was known for large-scale, mixed-use, and supertall projects, as well as the sustainable design seen in the planned 69-story Pearl River Tower—a “zero energy” building that uses wind harvesting, powerful turbines, and other green technologies (see Super Tall and Ultra Green, August 2006, p. 106). The new partnership’s plan to focus on Smith’s expertise will surely bring it into direct competition with his old firm. Metropolis editorial director Paul Makovsky spoke with Smith about his conflicts with SOM, his new venture, and how research on sustainability will play an important role in his future projects.


You recently announced that you were leaving SOM to start your own firm and described it as a friendly separation. Is it?
(Laughs.) I think it’s still friendly. My agreement was for three years, and I was up for renewal and was offered to stay, but on a one-year term. I talked with my wife about what we wanted to do for the rest of our lives. Do I want to retire at sixty-five or do I want to stay connected with the community in Chicago and continue to practice for the rest of my life? When I got the offer from SOM in August, I told them a one-year contract was not in line with what I wanted.

Does SOM actually have a mandatory retirement age?
They have a mandatory retirement for partners at sixty-five, but the current thinking is more about getting the younger generation in to run the firm. I was a beneficiary of that. I became a partner at thirty-five in 1980. But I thought, Why not take these next three years and start a new firm? The other part of that story was that there were some very good people at SOM in Chicago who were up for and should have made partner.

Are you talking about Gordon Gill and Marshall Strabala?
Gordon was one, and Marshall was one. And there are some others still there, but these guys were sort of trumped by a power move by the New York office.

What’s the idea for the firm that you’ve started with Gordon Gill?
Most of my experience throughout my partnership has been large-scale, mixed-use, and supertall buildings. In addition, I’ve always been interested in the issue of sustainability. It manifested in my earlier years more as a contextual approach, first taking into consideration the climate and the ecology. Then it took on a cultural meaning as well. In the last decade it took on more of a technology bent, as with the development of the Pearl River Tower, in Guangzhou, where we were successful in convincing the client to attempt to do a highly sustainable zero-energy building. Gordon and I know how to do large-scale projects that are ecologically sensitive and environmentally responsible and make some economic sense for the client.

At SOM you worked on some great projects, such as the original master plan for Millennium Park, in Chicago, and Jin Mao Tower, in Shanghai.
One of my favorites is Ten Fleet Place, in London, a ten-story office building that takes the idea of the contextual approach in the tight urban site into account. Chinese architects say Jin Mao, another favorite, is still the benchmark in architecture there, and they all aspire to getting a building of that quality someday. I’m also very proud of Rowes Wharf, in Boston, which connects the city to the harbor in a very contextual but purposeful way. In retrospect it was probably a little too historicist; and if I look back at my work, I’d say I wasn’t inventive enough— not as much as I should have been.

But the Boston project broke with SOM’s tradition of doing Miesian steel-and-glass boxes.
I knew what I wanted to do, but at the time I didn’t quite know how to do it. I applied the ideas of contextualism that I had learned from Ricardo Legorreta and Luis Bar-ragán on a project I worked on with them in Mexico.

What did you learn from them?
When I was doing the Grupo Industrial Alfa headquarters, in Mexico, our initial idea was to do a U.S.-corporate-headquarters-type building that was outward- rather than inward-looking. Ricardo thought it was wrong to put a glass-box building there, and said that the buildings in Mexico were all about protecting the privacy of the individual and creating courtyards and public spaces that are not on the street, but that are protected from the street. He said to look at the architecture of the poor, which used simple stucco and a strong use of color. So I researched that a lot and saw what he was talking about. We were supposed to be the design architect on the project, and Ricardo, who was supposed to be our associate, had a huge influence on what we were doing. Unfortunately, the project never got built. He introduced us to Luis Barragán, and we talked about these issues at some length. To him, it was about the context.

You left SOM with about ten projects still in progress, including Burj Dubai, the Pearl River Tower, and the Chicago Trump Tower.
I haven’t worked out a deal yet. I offered to be available to consult on these projects if SOM and the client want me to. I didn’t want the clients to feel like I was abandoning them, and I would like to consult in particular on some that are still in the earlier stages. I wanted to stay involved in Burj Dubai. SOM is still talking to me about it. They wanted to tie me to a “noncompete” contract on all of these projects in order to move forward. I didn’t want that because I thought we should take each project by itself. There might be one or two clients who would rather go ahead with me than SOM. In most cases the clients have come to SOM because of me—especially the newer projects that aren’t through a lot of the design work yet. Admittedly I don’t have the capability at this stage to pull off a four-million-square-foot mixed-use tower. But I’m working toward that, and in four to six months we will be.

You took about forty employees from SOM along with you?
That’s what’s been reported.

Well, how many are there in your office?
I want to make this clear: When I was at SOM, I didn’t talk to any clients or employees. I only talked to Gordon Gill because we were forming a partnership. When I left, we had a lot of different calls from people at SOM wanting to join us, and we’ve interviewed those who say they want to join us, and we’re in the process of trying to hire them because they’ve come to us. We want to make it a strong, vital firm, so it’s on the way. We’re moving to the top floor of a 1959 SOM building in Chicago. The space has travertine paving and stainless-steel columns—like the Barcelona Pavilion. We’ll have room for about sixty-five people.

You’ve worked with some great partners at SOM, such as Walter Netsch, Bruce Graham, Myron Goldsmith, and Fazlur Khan. What did you learn from each of them?
There was a strong difference. With Walter Netsch, I learned what not to do. (Laughs.) There was a strong rigor that Walter had that I think boxed me in to solutions that were not necessarily solutions that solved clients’ problems. I learned from Bruce how one can be innovative and yet responsive to a client. And I also learned some aspects of what not to do. He was very condescending to his clients at times. Myron Goldsmith was a man of few words, but when he said something, it really meant something. He had a huge influence on my character.

Fazlur Khan was another one. He was a structural engineer who was profound about taking a contextual approach. He was heavily involved in the Haj Terminal Project, in Jeddah, which was a wonderful large tent structure with self-ventilation, and it used the dynamics of airflow to bring cooler air—not air-conditioned air—into these buildings that sometimes housed millions of pilgrims. He was talking about the same thing as Legorreta and Barragán—about social responsibility and how architecture has to express its unique character in the place in which it’s being made.

You’ve said before that you’ll have more opportunity to pursue sustainability with Gordon than with SOM. What is it that you can do with sustainability at your new firm that you couldn’t at SOM?
Gordon and I want to do research that we can apply to buildings, and we want to collaborate with the local Chicago universities, but we also want to work with organizations like Boeing, NASA, and others that can help advance the technology of energy-producing mechanisms. For example, there are a couple of usable wind-turbine devices for buildings, but they really aren’t ­optimum. Who else better than the airplane industry to help us develop a turbine?

There was some research going on at SOM, but mostly it was glass and more artistic endeavors rather than meat and potatoes. I’d like to research maintaining buildings. There should be a much easier way to wash windows, like using robotic window washing. If you really put your mind to that issue, a lot of other things can be integrated into the architecture that could be very beneficial and cost-effective.

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