Not Your Daddy’s SOM

Roger Duffy’s quiet demeanor masks a steely determination to remake one of architecture’s behemoths.

When Roger Duffy arrived at the New York offices of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) for a job interview in 1985, he found himself in “a sea of travertine. I thought it was a period piece,” he says. “Then I found out it had been done three years before.” The firm that had created iconic corporate headquarters for Lever Bros., Chase Manhattan Bank, and Union Carbide in the 1950s and ’60s was in a rut. But Duffy objected to more than just the retro sensibility. “I didn’t like the impression of opulence,” he says. At the time SOM had a haughtiness that the soft-spoken Pennsylvanian (who had already spent four years in the firm’s Washington office) couldn’t abide.

And so, before he even got to the elevator, Duffy had an agenda: to make both SOM, and the buildings it creates, less monolithic. Twenty years later the extent to which he is accomplishing that goal surprises everyone—except perhaps Duffy. In a firm known for its skyscrapers and sprawling corporate campuses, he has designed a series of small projects—from a grade school to a science museum—that are innovative, stylish, and well crafted. And where collaborating with artists once meant choosing the right Picasso or Calder for a plaza, Duffy has delved deeper. At Connecticut’s Greenwich Academy he worked with James Turrell to turn the lobby and library of a new building into glowing “light chambers.” At the same time Duffy’s commercial projects seem surprisingly uncompromised by market pressures. The New York Times’s Herbert Muschamp, no fan of SOM, called Duffy’s design for a gossamer addition to a Madison Avenue office building “heavenly stuff.”

But Duffy’s efforts to remake SOM are at least as impressive as his buildings. In the seven years since he became a partner, Duffy has shaken up the firm, bringing in outside critics to measure the work of its 33 partners and hundreds of associates, and using his place on the firm’s Evaluation and Compensation committee to prod designers whose work he doesn’t think is up to par. According to SOM partner David Childs, “He’s come right out swinging, telling people, ‘You’re not living up to our standards; you’re not doing good buildings.’”

As if to symbolize the firm’s new direction, Duffy helped take SOM’s largest office, on three floors of a building on Wall Street, from travertine to plywood. “What I wanted was a laboratory for architectural experimentation,” he says, showing a visitor around the four-year-old suite (designed by SOM interior-design partner Stephen Apking, with input from Duffy and others). “I didn’t get everything I wanted”—Duffy points to the carpet where he says he’d prefer to see concrete—“but I got most of it.”

While some of the older partners, including Duffy’s mentor Childs, have conventional offices, Duffy occupies part of a “bull pen” that, he says, “invites people to come by and talk.” The design also allows his space to become a conference room when he’s away, which suits the egalitarian Duffy. (He and his wife live in Manhattan’s middle-class Stuyvesant Town and send their children to the United Nations International School, Duffy says, “so they’ll learn that there are other kinds of people in the world.”)

When Childs became SOM’s chairman in 1990, a slump had brought the firm to the brink of bankruptcy. And its pallid postmodernist buildings weren’t about to save it. “There were some very poor projects,” Childs concedes. He spent years working to restore SOM’s financial health—an accomplishment that he says is nearly as significant as anything he’s done as an architect—but knew that a real turnaround depended on improving the firm’s reputation. And that meant encouraging its best designers. Architect Christopher Stienon, who worked at SOM in the mid-1990s, before going to Beyer Blinder Belle, says, “Roger is literally obsessed with design, and he instills that in the younger people working with him.”

As a designer Duffy has been compared to Herzog & de Meuron, whose elegant, compact buildings are difficult to categorize and can be best appreciated up close. Certainly his work doesn’t look like anything else coming out of SOM. “Each partner runs his own show,” Duffy says. More surprising, his buildings don’t resemble one another. The Deerfield Academy science building—in which sinuous ribbonlike brick walls mediate a 15-foot grade change—couldn’t be more different from the Greenwich Academy project, with Turrell’s crystalline light chambers penetrating a grass roof, which in turn bears no resemblance to the performing-arts high school he’s planning for rundown Camden, New Jersey. There Duffy hopes to create an auditorium of translucent stone. “When it’s used at night, it would beckon people to the building,” he says. The auditorium will be Duffy’s version of Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book Library, designed by SOM’s legendary midcentury partner Gordon Bunshaft. It’s fitting that what Bunshaft did for the Ivy League, Duffy would like to do for the Urban League.

If his buildings run the gamut aesthetically, it may be because Duffy brings in outsiders and then actually listens to them. In Greenwich the collaboration with Turrell added hundreds of thousands of dollars to the building’s cost—muntins are fitted with fiber optics to the artist’s specifications—and required educating school administrators and trustees about developments in contemporary art.

Duffy says collaborating with artists is more ethical than the alternative—co-opting artists’ ideas—but, he notes, “you never know how these collaborations are going to turn out. It’s like swimming in the deep end of the pool.” Turrell says, “For Roger to be willing to take on problems they didn’t have before, for the sake of art, is a big deal.”

Duffy’s science building for Deerfield Academy, a Massachusetts prep school with a neo-Georgian campus, is more ambitious. There Duffy began not by sketching but by instigating a symposium at which Michael Govan, director of the Dia Art Foundation; Richard Walker, an observational astronomer; and artist I–igo Manglano-Ovalle offered ideas for how the building could express artistic and scientific ideas. Duffy worked with Walker and Turrell on turning the building into a science experiment writ large. At noon each day, the students will mark the position of the sun on a wall; over the course of the year, the points will form a figure-eight, called an analemma. That project “will open the minds of the students,” Duffy has said, “and connect the building to the universe.”

In fact Duffy’s buildings seem to relate more to the cosmos than to the architecture around them. Often, Duffy admits, “the surrounding buildings aren’t worth relating to.” But the topography is, and by studying the earth artists Robert Smithson and Turrell, Duffy has learned to create what he calls “hybrids between buildings and landscape solutions.” If they succeed, he says, they won’t necessarily be beautiful, “but they will expose the beauty of their sites.” They will also, Duffy says, “function at a very high level.” On each project he spends months (or years) analyzing the best buildings of the type—a process he calls “benchmarking.” For Deerfield, he says, “we looked at the best classrooms and laboratories in New England—and then began to think about ways to supersede them.”

But grass-covered “earthwork” buildings, no matter how functional, are difficult to represent in two dimensions. Deerfield, essentially a series of brick retaining walls stepping down a hill, has been published twice, Duffy says, but “from renderings it’s hard to tell what you’re looking at.” The completed Greenwich Academy building, with a lawn for a roof, is tough to photograph (except when Turrell’s lights are glowing). Which means Duffy didn’t help his own reputation when he invited the press to see Greenwich in daylight before the Turrell installation was complete. But who can blame him? At 46 he is bristling with ambition but has only a few built projects. (Even the vaunted 350 Madison Avenue scheme has, except for its lobby portion, been shelved.)

Duffy spent most of his twenties and thirties laboring in the shadows—mostly for Childs. His Tel Aviv airport project—a collaboration with Israeli architect Ram Karmi—required him to make 35 trips to Israel. “I missed the first two years of my son’s life,” Duffy says. When he finally made partner, one of the first things he did was have lunch with Terrence Riley, MoMA’s chief curator of architecture and design, who, Duffy says, was “also trying to use the power of an institution to do something special.”

Both men were interested in the meeting of art and architecture. Duffy later approached Fred Sandback, an artist known for defining volumes with lengths of yarn, about working with him on the lobby of 350 Madison; Sandback declined, because, Duffy says, “he preferred contemplative spaces.”

Then Duffy went after Turrell, who agreed to work with him on the Kuwait Police Academy (which remains unbuilt). After Turrell contributed to the Greenwich and Deerfield projects, Duffy reciprocated by producing technical drawings for the next phase of Turrell’s Roden Crater project.

Duffy’s most famous collaboration came in the competition, sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), to redevelop Ground Zero. Figuring he didn’t have a chance of being selected for the finals on his own—400 firms were vying for 7 spots—he put together a team that included SANAA (the firm that includes the Japanese phenom Kazuyo Sejima), Michael Maltzan, Field Operations (with James Corner and Princeton architecture dean Stan Allen), and the artists Rita McBride and Manglano-Ovalle.

“The organizers said, ‘We want futuristic ideas, innovative ideas. There will be no winner,’” Duffy recalls. “And so we enlisted emerging voices, who are under the skin of the culture, to challenge the idea of the public/private divide. We were envisioning what the future urban condition would be.” The finished product, a thicket of nearly identical towers, reflected “Sejima’s urban scheme,” Duffy says. Unlike the eventual winner, “We didn’t do a tall, sexy building, and we didn’t do symbolism.” Duffy concedes that the design, created at a cost to SOM of $500,000, “wasn’t received well.”

To make matters worse, Duffy was asked by the LMDC to withdraw from the competition weeks before the winner was selected, so that the firm could go back to advising its erstwhile client Larry Silverstein, the holder of the World Trade Center lease. (Childs is now working with both Silverstein and Daniel Libeskind at Ground Zero.)

Duffy is actively pursuing other competitions. In Qatar, he is in a runoff with Antoine Predock and Frank Gehry to design a science museum. He proposed building a giant solar chimney; heated air would rush up through the tubelike structure. “It’s a science museum, so we made the building a piece of science,” Duffy says. And he recently entered a competition for the European Central Bank in Frankfurt; the field of 80 included OMA, Morphosis, UN Studio, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, and Dominique Perrault. When the shortlist was announced, Duffy wasn’t on it. Still, he says he welcomes the chance “to measure yourself against the other great people doing architecture—the people you read about in books.”

Will people be reading about Duffy in books? The next few years will tell. His Ben Gurion Airport is nearing completion, as is the 8,000-square-foot Skyscraper Museum, beneath the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Battery Park City, which he designed pro bono. The Deerfield lab is now under construction, as is a public school in Connecticut, with a Swiss cheese-like roof plan (holes permit large trees to emerge from the building).

In the meantime, Duffy is appearing in a series of books he instigated. In perhaps his most audacious move since making partner, he convinced the firm to bankroll a yearly journal in which its work is evaluated by outside critics. Each spring artists, engineers, and architects like Tod Williams, Doug Garofalo, and Jesse Reiser spend a day evaluating SOM’s recent output. Transcripts of the jury’s deliberations, along with a handful of its favorite projects, are published in the journal, a lean, sometimes mean paperback that bears no resemblance to the self-congratulatory SOM monographs once seen on corporate coffee tables.

The first SOM Journal—in which all five of the judges’ favorite design projects were by Childs or Duffy—“created disturbances within the firm,” Childs says. With his partners threatening to pull the plug, Duffy agreed to cede control of the project to SOM’s Chicago office. But of the nine projects chosen for SOM Journal 2 (published this summer), four were by Duffy. And in SOM Journal 3 (scheduled for publication next summer), three of the ten winners are his—this in a firm with 900 employees worldwide.

That’s not the only way Duffy has made waves. “He’s been quite outspoken,” Childs says. “In a partnership, it’s easy to criticize someone for not making enough money, but a lot harder to say, ‘You’re not being innovative enough.’” According to Childs, who is 62, partners don’t bother complaining to him about Duffy. “I don’t take a lot of phone calls because people know Roger has my support.” The SOM Journal, he says, is already having an effect: “People in all our offices are making better decisions, better buildings, because they want their work to appear in the journal.”

That’s a big shift for SOM, where anonymity was once the rule. Under Bunshaft, the identities of project architects were suppressed. The result was “difficulty keeping good people,” Childs says. Not coincidentally, the first SOM Journal included an interview with Walter Netsch, giving him a chance to take credit for the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The second journal shines a spotlight on Bruce Graham, who designed the Sears and Hancock skyscrapers in Chicago.

The book is also improving the reputation of SOM in architecture schools.

For years stars like Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, and Zaha Hadid landed the top students. To the class of 2003, SOM is an option again. “Stan Allen sent me a resume,” Duffy says. “Greg Lynn sent me a resume.” By making SOM a hot place to work, he is taking Childs’s mandate not just to his but to the next generation. Meanwhile, it is large-scale projects, like Sil-verstein’s tower at the World Trade Center site, that keep SOM afloat. Duffy’s projects “aren’t big moneymakers,” Childs says. “But he has been holding his own financially. He isn’t just a hanger-on.” And he says Duffy may help the firm expand by bringing in museum commissions. “We haven’t really been in that world, but with Roger’s buildings, we will be.”

Duffy says he hasn’t ruled out doing large commercial buildings; but for now, “smaller projects are where I can really push the envelope.” But why produce small buildings at a large firm? With SOM’s resources, he has been able to assemble a team of talented young architects dedicated to making his projects successful. “Being a partner at SOM,” Riley says, “puts an incredible amount of design and technical power at your disposal.”

Indeed Duffy dreams of harnessing the power of SOM. “Frank Gehry is brilliant,” he says, “but how many buildings is he going to do? Firms like SOM do hundreds of buildings. If we can manage to have the firm do consistently good work, we could really improve the world.”

Childs hopes he gets the chance: “If seventy percent of the partners want him out, he’s out. But I don’t think that will happen. What protects him is the quality of his work, and the fact that he is completely innocent in his quest. Roger could go off on his own and do very well. But if they’re smart, they’ll do everything they can to keep him.”

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