Bruce Graham and the Architecture of Power
He clapped his hands, and the lights in his office went on. That is my strongest memory of Bruce Graham, who died last Saturday at the age of 84. I do not mean to denigrate his achievements as the man responsible for the design of the Sears and Hancock Towers in Chicago, among many other buildings that sport an elegant bigness, but because he was somebody who conveyed the ability to turn technology into power. Whether it was by using what was then the latest gizmo to manipulate lighting or by collaborating with the engineer Fazlur Khan to create the world’s tallest tower, he got things done. Graham and his firm, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, bestrode the ramparts of big business and designed those defensive structures at the height of our belief in American corporate power.
Graham was architecture as big business. After the handclap came the short drive in the black limousine with license plates “SOM 1” to his private club for lunch. I was there as one of the candidates for the directorship of the SOM Foundation, which Graham saw as converting the firm’s wealth into a center for advanced theoretical research (I didn’t get the job, but the institute did function as such for a while). I was living for a few months in Chicago, and everywhere around me I saw the big buildings he and his firm had designed. For me then, they represented much of what had gone wrong with architecture. They were the unholy spawn of Mies van der Rohe’s sleek packaging and Le Corbusier’s muscular gestures. They used advanced engineering principles to create structures that seemed to express nothing more than the ability to make things big. This was the architecture of power without any seeming purpose.
Now, every time I walk by the Hancock Tower, I admire its ability to soar. I once stayed in a hotel room across the street and loved staring at the play of headlights and reflections behind the veil of frosted glass on its parking garage. The fabled detailing of which Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was capable like no other firm is on display all over the city. The buildings for which Graham was responsible have an enigmatic grandeur that often survives their original patrons (the Sears Tower is now the Willis Tower). We remember Graham because he used his position to bring fresh thinking into the architectural profession, to allow for structural experimentation, and to improve his native Chicago through his spearheading of, for instance, the Navy Pier renovation.
Graham’s power was a corporate one. He was the team leader for one of the slickest architectural machines the world has ever known, and developed his projects as part of large business and civic structures that were able to entrain vast amounts of resources to create singular and powerful results. He gave form to the headquarters and the meeting places, the bureaucratic mazes and the decision moments from which much work was done.
When I fly into Chicago, approaching the city from across the lake, I often admire the big things Graham left behind, from the towers soaring out of the city to the new park space next to a reconfigured Lake Shore Drive, to the stretch of McCormick Place. I feel a bit of nostalgia for the power to get such big things done. These, however, are different times, and we will have to figure out how to make a thoughtful, appropriate architecture without the likes of Bruce Graham.