SOM Evolutions: Recent Work of Skidmore, Owings & Merill

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9783764360726: SOM Evolutions: Recent Work of Skidmore, Owings & Merill
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Skidmore, Owings & Merrill have been practicing architecture for more than sixty years and are amongst the most well-known architectural firms worldwide. They began to attract attention in the 1950s when they created notable corporate buildings such as Lever House in New York, which continued the Modernist style and in particular that of Mies van Rohe. They also went on to gain acclaim with their engineering achievements; the technology developed by the firm made buildings such as Sears Tower in Chicago possible-for many years the highest building in the world.

SOM now has individual offices in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Hong Kong and London which all work with a high degree of autonomy enabling the architects to serve the needs of the clients and communities.

This volume presents a selection of those recent projects which are of a particularly high aesthetic and technical value. Amongst the projects included are: International Terminal at San Francisco International Airport, Jin Mao Building in Shanghai, Hong Kong Convention Center, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China in Beijing, United States Agency for International Development in Cairo, the International Terminal at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, and Changi Airport in Singapore.

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Review:

In the smart Q&A roundtable that opens this stylish monograph of new and in-progress projects from the long-established megafirm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, one of the principals notes, with mixed sentiments, "We have been called the IBM of architecture." It's an astute comparison: both companies' names were, and remain, synonymous with the behemoth-like face of stolid midcentury corporate America; both lost their near-total sovereignty over their respective markets in the '70s and '80s as their bureaucratic hubris spiraled out of control and they lost business to smaller, nimbler, more inventive upstarts; and both have managed to reenter the game in the 1990s by breaking down into more intimate collaborative "pods" and putting client needs (or what IBM calls "business solutions" in its self-conscious new-economy parlance) before their own rigid visions of "correct" design.

The new face of SOM (they like that surname-obscuring acronym because it plays down personal egoism in favor of collaboration, flexibility, and reliability) is vividly illuminated in SOM Evolutions. The book is an overview of 23 very recent or in-progress works that are helping this firm of nine offices worldwide with a total staff of 850 prove it can design massive, multiuse corporate/public sites that are as sensitive to history, context, civics, and use as anything from those new-school shops. And all the while it maintains the urban gravitas that became its signature in the postwar years and clearly marked any SOM edifice--whether or not you thought it was ugly, cold, or impractical. In an admittedly very reductive word, this seems to mean that whereas most of SOM's oeuvre from the '50s and '60s were all rectangles, right angles, and impenetrable slabs of concrete, all of it rendered in black and white or their half-tones, their '90s and early-21st-century work is marked by slender-beamed steel exoskeletons girding luminous light-as-air glass envelopes, as well as multiple volumes, differentiated in all sorts of clever ways, often dazzlingly curvilinear and inspired by the traditional architecture of a given site's region.

And even if SOM's name doesn't immediately evoke the cutting edge anymore, clearly the big spenders of the world still put their money on it; the scale of most of the projects shown here is muy grande, to say the least. Featured are London's Exchange House; Lisbon's port-side multipurpose Atlantico Pavilion; Shanghai's Jin Mao Building, a pagoda-inspired office tower that was the tallest building in China upon its completion in 1999; new international terminals for airports in San Francisco and (even more breathtaking, with its tree-filled processional scheme) Tel Aviv; Washington, D.C.'s 2001 K Street, fashioned at the client's request after the firm's famous Pepsi-Cola building; and the Kuwait Policy Academy in Kuwait City, slung out over 75 acres of desert and conceived along the principles of pre-Islamic space organization.

Two projects in New York City that are being closely watched by the design world are also featured here: SOM's bold retrofit of a 1913 McKim Mead & White neoclassical treasure into a new Penn Station, and its design for a multiuse complex flanking half of Columbus Circle, where Midtown, the West Side and Central Park converge.

Unfortunately, many of works in the monograph are not yet completed, and at this point models and computer-generated images will have to suffice to tell the tale of SOM's confident new strides into the 21st century. Interspersed with the color images of new and forthcoming projects are black-and-white period photos of the projects (not including Lever House, oddly) that made SOM's name, such as Chicago's Hancock Center (1969), NYC's Manufacturer's Hanover Trust Company (1954), and the international arrivals building at JFK Airport (1958). There's even the Plainsboro, New Jersey, industrial reactor research center (also '58), with one building designed to look unmistakably like a huge, shiny missile head aimed skyward, proving that even imperious SOM wasn't immune to the now-kitschy design imagery of the atomic age.

Admittedly, some of these first-wave projects look impossibly cold and brutish by contemporary standards--especially such concrete-slab fortresses as 1971's LBJ Library at the University of Texas--but with the current resurgence of international- and midcentury-modern-inspired design, many of them look hip, fresh, sexy, and ironic in a way that their self-serious creators probably never intended. --Timothy Murphy

From Library Journal:

The architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) is inextricably associated with the sleek, corporate phase of the International Style that flowered in the 1950s and 1960s. Those who think SOM's glory days ended shortly afterwards may raise an eyebrow at the words "recent work" in the subtitle. Architectural journalist Bussel presents 23 projects in 12 countries, spanning from 1987 to 2004. Each project is well illustrated with photos, plans, models, and computer-generated images. Vintage black-and-white photos of classic SOM structures, such as the 1958 Inland Steel Building, are interspersed among the recent projects, over half of which are under construction or still on the drawing boards. The author not so subtly intimates that SOM is entering another golden age, an assessment with which critics appraising New York's Penn Station Redevelopment or the San Francisco International Terminal may well concur. Strangely, perhaps SOM's most prominent project, another "world's tallest building" scheduled for completion in 2003 in Chicago, is not included. An interesting but optional purchase for academic and large public libraries.DDavid Solt sz, Cuyahoga Cty. P.L., Parma, OH
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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