Bruce Graham, the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) principal behind such legendary 20th century designs as Chicago’s Inland Steel Building, Hancock Center, and Sears Tower, died on March 6 at his home in Hobe Sound, Fla. He was 84 years old. Born in Columbia in 1925, Graham grew up in Peru and Puerto Rico. He first visited Chicago for naval training while serving during World War II. Following architecture school at the University of Pennsylvania, he worked at SOM from 1951 until his retirement in 1989.
Graham led many designs for the Chicago office during its heyday in the mid-20th century. In theory, the corporate model that the founders had established was one of equal partners. Differentiation came from credits accrued through work that individual partners brought to the firm. Graham realized that about 80 percent of the firm’s commissions came from the street through SOM's excellent reputation in corporate America and made sure that his assistant was assigned to the phones so that all such projects could be credited to his account.
The architect was known by his associates for his ability to calculate floor-area ratios and structural bays in his head to provide developers with straightforward architectural solutions for their real estate while sitting in a meeting. He legendarily developed engineer Fazlur Kahn’s structural tube high-rise concept into the “bundled tube” system used at the Sears Tower (now Willis Tower) by pulling a handful of cigarettes out of his pocket and demonstrating the stability provided by combining the tall, thin forms.
More than two decades after his departure from Chicago, Graham’s Hancock and Willis towers still rank as two of the city’s four tallest structures, and the Willis Tower remains the tallest skyscraper in North America.