Our Legacy

Since our founding in 1936, SOM has been designing the future. From the first modernist office building in New York City to supertall towers that have redefined city skylines, our firm has been responsible for some of the most significant architectural and engineering achievements in modern history.

Launching an experiment

Louis Skidmore and Nathaniel Owings started their architecture firm on January 1, 1936. It was in an office—an attic, really—at 104 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Friend and engineer John Merrill would officially join in 1939. More than a dozen offices past and present and over 10,000 commissions later, their experiment endures.

SOM Founding Partners. Left to right: John Merrill, Nathaniel Owings, Louis Skidmore
SOM Founding Partners; Left to right: John Merrill, Nathaniel Owings, Louis Skidmore

SOM continues to honor the pledge that Skidmore and Owings made when they went into business together: to offer a multidisciplinary service that meets the needs of its time. As Owings wrote, “Through combining group practice and good design, social change, showmanship, we would marinate our architectural demands in sound economics to meet the criteria of our doubting critics—who didn’t believe that one could have both economy and aesthetics—with proof that they were one and the same.”

View of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Pick-a-Back Housing, 1949

Having been hired for various New Deal-supported housing projects; the 1939 World’s Fair in New York; and the highly-classified creation of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, an entire town planned and built from scratch for the Manhattan Project, SOM was well-positioned for the prosperity that would quickly transform the United States’ economy and culture at home, and its rising influence abroad upon the conclusion of World War II.

Skid and I pledged our lives … to offer a multi-disciplined service competent to design and build the multiplicity of shelters needed for man’s habitat. We would build only in the vernacular of our age

Bold private sector projects such as the Terrace Plaza Hotel integrated modern interiors with ambitious art installations throughout a mixed-use, International Style tower in downtown Cincinnati. Corporations around the world wanted their own version of Lever House (AIA 25 Year Award, 1980) after the L-shaped tower and its glass curtain wall forever changed New York City’s Park Avenue.


Leading the postwar moment

With committed modernists like Gordon Bunshaft (Pritzker Architecture Prize, 1988) and Natalie de Blois, SOM continued to attract attention from prospective clients and the design world at large. By 1950, the firm had earned an exhibit devoted entirely to its innovative design work at the Museum of Modern Art, signaling its status as the architecture firm of the postwar moment in the U.S. and abroad, delivering architecture that responded to new technologies and societal expectations.

Bunshaft
Gordon Bunshaft at Beinecke Library, Yale University © Ezra Stoller | Esto
Myron Goldsmith and Natalie de Blois © SOM
Walter Netsch at UICC Campus
Walter Netsch at UIC

A second generation of influential designers would soon follow. Bruce Graham and Walter Netsch brought modernity to Chicago’s Loop with their office tower for Inland Steel — a design that influenced Bunshaft’s Chase Manhattan Bank headquarters in Lower Manhattan. Netsch broke away from the Mies and Le Corbusier-inspired constraints learned by SOM’s first generation, creating a stunning contrast to the U.S. Air Force Academy Campus’ rigidity with a 17-spire Cadet Chapel (AIA 25 Year Award, 1996). He also developed his own, highly versatile and geometric “field theory” approach to architecture, best exemplified by his design for the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Circle Campus. Bassett brought an intense concern for the environment to the Seattle-Tacoma area with his “groundscaper” for the Weyerhaeuser Company Headquarters (AIA 25 Year Award, 2001) that masterfully integrated architecture into its lush surroundings.

One Chase Manhattan Plaza © JP Morgan Chase Archives
Lever House © Ezra Stoller

From the modern office building to the rural corporate campus and the great developer skyscraper, the contemporary airport and rail station, to say nothing of the popularization of modern architecture in general, SOM was there.


Engineering for new heights

The integration of architecture and engineering was a founding principle of SOM, exemplified in so many of the office buildings, museums, and transportation facilities the firm has designed over the years. But perhaps no one engineer has had as much of an impact on architecture more broadly as Fazlur Khan, who played a critical role in the construction of Chicago’s John Hancock Center (AIA 25 Year Award, 1999) and Sears Tower, through the implementation of his tube structural system. Working with Bunshaft, he also helped realize the Hajj Terminal (AIA 25-Year Award, 2010) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

King Abdul Aziz International Airport - Hajj Terminal
King Abdul Aziz International Airport - Hajj Terminal © Jay Langlois | Owen Corning
Faz Kahn, Bruce Graham, William Brown, and others look at a model of the John Hancock Center
Fazlur Kahn (far left) and Bruce Graham (second from left) present a model of the John Hancock Center. K&S Photographics

Khan’s work continues to influence the design of supertalls all over the world to this day, including the Burj Khalifa—designed and engineered by SOM and completed as the world’s tallest building in 2009. Its buttressed core structural system was developed by Bill Baker, who, since 1981 has worked with SOM on various innovative engineering solutions. For Broadgate Exchange House in London (AIA 25 Year Award, 2015) Baker developed an expressed structural frame for the office building that spans the active train tracks underneath it in the manner of a bridge, with a parabolic arch forming the basis of the overall structural engineering design. The final design represents a singular structural concept that is functional and elegant while corresponding to Britain’s long tradition of iron, steel, and glass structures.

Burj Khalifa
Burj Khalifa © Getty Images

The rigorous engineering and design work behind the creation of a great skyscraper is followed by the symbolism it generates long after construction is complete. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, SOM’s contributions to the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan culminated with the opening of One World Trade Center—a 1,776-foot-tall tower adjacent to the National September 11 Memorial. Its soaring presence on the skyline immediately stood in for New York’s—and the United States’s—resilience, and it endures as a modern icon known around the world.

1WTC
One World Trade Center. © James Ewing

Elevating the indoors

SOM’s commitment to quality design goes beyond the skyline. Early on, the firm’s philosophy of total design established a criteria that related the scale, materials, and specific use of furniture to the overall architectural concept. SOM was able to first combine interior and exterior work at Chicago’s Inland Steel Building, a project successful enough to ensure future clients would consistently ask SOM to design both the architecture and the interiors together for any given project. That’s where Davis Allen debuted his “tin desk” design, which was then elaborated upon for Chase Manhattan’s new headquarters, eventually becoming the first modern desk developed by Steelcase—a frequent partner in office design projects to this day.

Inland Steel Building
Inland Steel Building © Hedrich Blessing
Inland Steel Building
Inland Steel Building interior. © Ezra Stoller | ESTO
Weyerhauser Corporate Headquarters
Weyerhauser Corporate Headquarters. © Ezra Stoller | Esto

SOM developed close relationships with other pioneers in the interior design world, including Florence Knoll. Her Planning Unit—Knoll’s revolutionary interior planning arm—was brought onto the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company Headquarters project in 1950. The final result set a new standard for nearly every element of the corporate workplace. The next generation of the firm would work with Knoll again on one of the country’s first ever interior open office plans at the Weyerhaeuser Headquarters, establishing a system of dividers and modular furniture. A decade later, SOM and Florence Knoll would team up one last time on an all-encompassing office design project, Miami’s Southeast Bank headquarters.

Today, award-winning projects like the JTI Headquarters in Geneva—with its “continuous landscape” concept—and the BBVA Bancomer Operations Center in Mexico City—which guided a transformation of the company’s operational structure—demonstrate SOM’s continued focus on rigorous and uplifting interior design.

JTI HQ
JTI Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. © Hufton + Crow

Co-creating with artists

SOM’s ethos of collaboration ranges from the practical to the aesthetic. At Cincinnati’s Terrace Plaza, SOM’s first hospitality commission, the firm worked with Joan Miró and Saul Steinberg on murals, and Alexander Calder for a mobile. Years later in the same city, SOM worked with Ellsworth Kelly on what was, at the time, the artist’s largest commission ever, displayed inside the Central Trust Center. Miró would later design a sculpture for Chicago’s Brunswick Plaza, which sits across the street from Chicago’s Picasso, a highly visible work commissioned by SOM’s William Hartmann. Calder would work with SOM again through Bruce Graham for mobiles at Sears Tower and Wichita’s Bank of America Center. Bunshaft’s insistence on integrating art with architecture is unmatched, having worked with Isamu Noguchi at Chase Manhattan Plaza, 140 Broadway, and Yale’s Beinecke Library; with Jean Dubuffet for a sculpture at Chase Manhattan Plaza; and with Harry Bertoia for an indoor screen wall at 510 Fifth Avenue.

Joan Miro Sculpture at Brunswick Plaza
Joan Miro sculpture at Brunswick Plaza © Hedrich Blessing
One Chase Manhattan Plaza | Jean Dubuffet sculpture © Ezra Stoller | Esto

This tradition has continued into the 21st century, including the firm’s collaborations with James Carpenter and Jenny Holzer at the base of 7 World Trade Center, illuminated installations by James Turrell at Greenwich Academy Upper School and Leo Villareal at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, and a colorful fiber net sculpture by Janet Echelman at Sunset La Cienega in Los Angeles.


Igniting a digital revolution

Long before AutoCAD was taught in architecture schools, SOM was inventing it. At Fazlur Khan’s urging, the firm installed an IBM 1620 in 1963, developing the graphic potential of computers to analyze structural design. Such innovations played a key role in the engineering analysis of the John Hancock Center and the formal exploration of the Hajj Terminal. The efforts of SOM’s Computer Group even spilled out into popular culture, with one of the early members, Bill Kovacs, leaving for Hollywood in 1978 to create the animation software used for the movie Tron. By the 1980s, SOM was digitally rendering buildings and analyzing their configurations, structural systems, energy demands, and building materials. Today, our teams are optimizing parametric tools and exploring the capabilities of machine learning and artificial intelligence. 

SOM's latest exhibition in London shows the possibilities when robotic intelligence and human ingenuity come together.

Designing for the planet

This spirit of experimentation has carried SOM into the 21st century, with our architects, planners, engineers, and designers pushing towards urgently needed solutions for the fight against climate change. Years since Weyerhaeuser’s headquarters opened as the “original green building,” SOM is committed to groundbreaking sustainable projects like P.S. 62 in Staten Island, the first net-zero-energy public school on the East Coast; the Billie Jean King Library in Long Beach, California, which uses timber construction in order to significantly reduce embodied carbon; the Los Angeles Federal Courthouse, engineered with a high-performance facade while also efficiently reducing material need and embodied carbon; and the master plan for the UC Merced campus, the first public research university in the nation to achieve carbon neutrality.

Billie Jean King Library timber construction
Billie Jean King Library, Long Beach, California. © Benny Chan | Fotoworks
Denver Union Station
Denver Union Station © Magda Biernat Photography

SOM’s contributions to master plans for the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Portland’s Transit Mall, and London’s Broadgate in the 20th century, and Florida’s Brightline rail system, Denver’s Union Station, Detroit’s East Riverfront, and the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River, and Gulf of St. Lawrence watershed today, bring big-picture thinking in the pursuit of equitable, sustainable urbanism as well as the preservation and enhancement of our natural resources.

A growing portfolio of adaptive reuse projects, like Chicago’s former Cook County Hospital, Manhattan’s Moynihan Train Hall and Waldorf Astoria, and even the transformation of SOM’s own Pepsi-Cola Headquarters from 1960, brings new life to beloved buildings and give the firm new skills and experience to build upon as the world finds ways to decarbonize. New municipal regulations like New York’s Local Law 97, which mandate energy targets for existing buildings, only heighten the urgency to come up with smart, economical solutions for modernizing our built environment in the pursuit of a better future.


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