The titans of wall street are back. No, not the TARP-drunk, mortgage-swapping bankers who got us into the present economic quagmire. I’m talking about Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—SOM on the architectural stock ticker—for nearly 75 years the bluest chip in the American design portfolio. You’ll find its New York headquarters in the former Bankers Trust tower (suppress that laugh), a perch with views over a Financial District landscape for which it, more than any other firm, is responsible. Those skyscraping pylons may have been built for bankers no longer worthy of our trust, but SOM remains its cool, reliable self, the profession’s great bastion of corporate strength, the Brooks Brothers of glass and steel.
Which is not to say SOM hasn’t suffered like every other firm in this brutal economic environment. Billings are down 25 percent from where they were two years ago. Staff was cut in equal measure. “It was definitely a hard year,” says managing partner T. J. Gottesdiener. Nevertheless, he is sanguine about the firm’s prospects. “We’re starting to look to hire. A few at a time, here and there. We’re feeling good about the direction of things.”
Artistically, at least, the firm has every right to a sense of satisfaction. In January, SOM reclaimed for itself authorship of the World’s Tallest Tower with the opening of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, though the euphoria was perhaps offset by the earlier departure of Adrian Smith, the partner in charge of the project. The Burj, in any case, serves as a testament to the firm’s historic ability to fuse advanced engineering and modernist aesthetics.
That technical rigor reached a level of transcendence, both literal and figural, with design partner Craig W. Hartman’s Cathedral of Christ the Light, a glass-wrapped drum for Oakland, Calif, completed in 2008. The firm that got its start building Oak Ridge, home of the Manhattan Project, remains expert at complex planning projects, as its award-winning master plans for Foshan Lingnan Tiandi (in China) and Treasure Island (in San Francisco Bay) demonstrate.
“One of the strengths of SOM is it supports [technical] experimentation,” says design partner Roger Duffy. “We’re open to criticism and we try to react to it.” That ruthless quest for innovation applies also to SOM’s management. “When I was made a partner, I was pulled into a room and I was told”—by David Childs—“now you start a new job. Your job is to look for your replacement,” says Gottesdiener. “I was really struck by that. The best way to make the best firm is to find the best people.”