Monday, March 08, 2010

Book Review: SOM: Architecture of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

SOM: Architecture of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (five volumes)
Monacelli Press, 2009
Hardcover, 224-288 pages

1950-1962, Introduction by Henry Russell-Hitchcock; 1963-1973, Introduction by Arthur Drexler; 1973-1983, Introduction by Albert Bush-Brown; 1984-1996, Introduction by Detlef Martins; 1997-2008, Introduction by Kenneth Frampton

If any architecture firm deserves the simultaneous publication of five monographs it is Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). Founded in 1936, SOM is the ultimate corporate architecture office, known for its emphasis on organization which enables the huge multi-city firm to achieve projects that only other firms can imagine. These monographs (the first three were previously published) tackle the firm's large oeuvre, presenting a fraction of their built work. Each book spans roughly one decade, starting in 1950 and extending to a couple years ago; these dates coincide with the design of the Lever House and the construction of the Burj Dubai, now Burj Khalifa. The first marks the beginning of the optimistic age of glass box office towers, and the second marks the end of an exuberant decade whose downturn we now find ourselves, without a visible end. SOM has ridden all the highs and lows in between, in many cases marking them for the larger architectural community with their significant buildings and internal make-up.
Each monograph follows a consistent format: Around 30 or 40 projects are documented in each volume with photographs, drawings and a brief description by the firm. The introductions by critics/historians outside the firm contribute a great deal towards situating the projects within the context of the firm, the profession and more. Kenneth Frampton's intro to the most recent volume attempts to find currents in a contemporary practice that is far removed from the firm's early days and its stylistic continuity. Today's designs reflect not only the diversity found in SOM's various offices and studios but also the same found in architecture in other practices small, big, and in-between. In other words modernism is long gone and pluralism rules the day. For SOM this is refreshing, because projects like Burr Elementary School and Cathedral of Chirst the Light can be found alongside mega-projects and skyscrapers in the firm's portfolio. Even though SOM is still associated with corporate office buildings, the firm and its studios and designers work on a wide range of project types at various sizes. Their skill in handling the intricacies of each project is revealed in these pages.
What's most rewarding about these five monographs is having a collection spanning most of the history of one of the most important -- if not the most important -- architecture firms of the 20th century. SOM's continued relevance in our current century stems from their ability to diversify their practice, to get jobs in booming markets, to set and follow trends in architecture (sustainability, technology, media), and to nurture design talent, qualities exhibited in three projects presented here.