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The Genesis of Digital Design at SOM

In the beginning, the Chicago office had a well established culture of innovation in multi-disciplinary design. Computers were big, expensive and slow. Memory was incredibly miniscule, breathtakingly expensive, and cumbersome. A small group of 20-something and 30-something architects and engineers in the computer group were intent on transforming the practice digitally, in the face of their peers’ resistance. “When means are limited, the imagination takes off,” architectural historian Nicholas Adams noted recently.

In this case, imagination soared, recognizing no limits in devising applications driven by real-time problem solving on projects. SOM’s trailblazing computer group evolved not as an “IT shop,” but as a studio-focused invention of talented architects and engineers improvising transformative tools of practice. Their creative approach was to embrace the challenge of creatively stitching together their early-stage digital tools to make the not yet possible, possible.

This applied research group recognized that hardware would always need to catch up, but that what was available could be made to do the unnatural. They ran a generation ahead, and created an integrated platform that set industry standards for the hardware and software that characterize the practice today. The spirit of invention remains at the heart of SOM, and the power of innovation continues to evolve its practice.