Adrian Smith announced in early October that he was leaving Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM) to start a new Chicago-based firm specializing in large international and sustainable projects. “We'll be competing with SOM,” Smith says. He plans a firm of 50 architects or more.
A Chicago native, Smith began working at SOM in 1967 while he attended the University of Illinois at Chicago. Except for a six-month stint at Perkins+Will, SOM has been Smith's sole professional home. He became a partner in 1980, collaborating with luminaries such as Bruce Graham, Walter Netsch, and Myron Goldsmith as he worked his way up the ranks. Smith characterizes his departure as the latest changing of the guard. “They have transitioned from generation to generation,” he says. “It's the reason SOM has lasted 70 years.”
Smith's role at SOM changed in recent years as new partners in their mid-40s emerged and he approached mandatory retirement at 65. Three years ago, he became a consulting design partner—a perceived demotion that some considered his first step toward the door, even while he maintained design control over such major projects as Trump Tower Chicago, Burj Dubai (planned to be the world's tallest building), and the “Zero Energy Tower” (the corporate headquarters for Guangdong Tobacco Co. in Guangzhou, China).
“I want to start my own practice,” says Smith, 62, who hopes to work for at least another 10 to 15 years. He left SOM with 10 of his projects still in progress, although only three are not yet in construction. Smith has offered to consult with SOM on design issues that may remain; he will be involved on a case-by-case basis only if both SOM and the clients concur.
Smith isn't concerned about finding challenges that will match his previous commissions. “I have an international reach,” he says. “I'm probably more well known in China than I am here.”