Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) is one of the largest and most influential architecture, interior design, engineering, and urban planning firms in the world. Founded in 1936, the firm has completed more than 10,000 projects across 50-plus countries. The firm is renowned for their iconic buildings and their steadfast commitment to design excellence, innovation, and sustainability. Collaboration is a guiding force at SOM. They believe the best results stem from an ongoing dialogue with all stakeholders. There are no pre-established formulas at SOM. They design each project to meet specific needs and conditions. Colin Koop is a Design Director and Dan Cashen is a Senior Designer in Roger Duffy’s (Design Partner) studio of SOM’s New York office.
On becoming architects
Colin: I grew up as the son of a farmer’s daughter, and we all had to do 4-H, a youth development organization. Landscape architecture was one of the things that you could do for an award. So I did a lot of landscape architecture, and ended going to State finals. When I went to college, I applied exclusively to architecture schools. There was no real decision point for me, as I grew up thinking this way from the beginning. It’s funny, but I tell people that I decided to be an architect as a preschooler.
Dan: Honestly, I never thought of architecture as a career path until I went to college. I grew up in Bolivia, and my father was involved in designing (and building) humanitarian projects in the Yungas region of La Paz. My summer jobs took place on these job sites, which is how I learned about construction. The level of poverty in Bolivia is hard to grasp, and seeing the social impact that architecture could have on people’s lives, was a huge part of my career choice.
On discovering their voices as designers
Colin: When you grow up in the Midwest, you have many heroes. At a very young age, I had exposure to a significant number of Breuer buildings at St. John’s University, which was a big influence. I developed a comfort with modernism and forward-thinking design from a very young age. In terms of educators, Bob Hansman and Gia Daskalakis at the University of Washington in St. Louis were a major influence. At the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), certainly Hashim Sarkis was a big influence. He really allows the students to have their own voice and is extremely insistent that that voice be tied to the real world, to real projects, and to influence real communities. In terms of SOM, I was recommended by a friend and started working with Scott Duncan. After about six months, I started working directly with Roger Duffy. Coming from the GSD, the systematic approach to form making was tempered by Roger’s meditative approach to thinking about place and its unique qualities.
Dan: Before the GSD, I spent some time in Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam’s studio in Atlanta. Mack and Merrill’s approach was incredibly liberating, and it really taught me to abandon any preconceived notions I had about architecture. During grad school, I spent a summer in the studio of Luis Rojo and Begoña Fernandez-Shaw. Their design process is extremely iterative and it made me rethink the way program and structure come together. In terms of educators, Charley Hailey, at the University of Florida, helped me understand how to properly conduct research. At the GSD, some of my best work came from the studios of John Hong, Eric Bunge, Josh Prince-Ramus, and Joe McDonald. SOM was alluring because of the notion of collectivity; the front door doesn’t have a single individual’s name. I joined Roger’s studio and started working with Colin from the outset.
On specific principles they strive to adhere to
Colin: Sustainability and the desire to create a built environment that is proactive in improving our environmental situation is a major issue for us. I also think that considering program as the cradle of creation for the form of a building is another big part of our process. We don’t just start with form and retroactively insert program in a less than ideal way. The intended use is a great informer for the end result. Also, I think that authorship is less important versus control. Especially for big buildings, the idea that the hand of a single architect is making all of the decisions is simply not real. What is really important is that there’s a collaborative process in place, between the architects, engineers, and construction managers. The architect then asserts him/herself in a position of authority within this group.
Dan: Along the same lines, our studio favors a “synthetic” end-result. This means that the final design should be the summation of a deeply integrated and collaborative process. For example, if we are seeking the expressive legibility of the structure, we simply roll out the trace paper and sketch possible solutions with our structural engineers. This is a powerful advantage that we have as an integrated practice. The ability to do real-time iterations with your engineers saves time, and yields more informed and intelligent solutions.
On their primary focuses at SOM
Colin: I oversee various design teams as a Design Director. I also work closely with the partners to ensure that our projects are aligned within a unified vision.
Dan: I’m a design team-leader. My primary role is to ensure that a clear vision is maintained for a particular project.
On recent projects that represent SOM’s unique approach
Colin: SOM’s approach to design is integration, plain and simple. We continue to uphold tectonic clarity and a program-driven approach as fundamental design principles. But the real uniqueness of our firm is how architects and engineers come together to make great architecture. We have a practice in which a young person gets to experience construction documents as much as design competitions. It was also an integrated approach to design the University Center at the New School in New York City, which brought together Tishman’s construction expertise with SOM’s design sensibilities. For the Guiyang Cultural Plaza (GCP) Tower in China, custom tools were developed to share information between the architecture and engineering teams.
Dan: Deep collaboration is central to our approach. We often work with our clients to clearly define the design problem, so that we can resolve it in a way that is innovative, well-executed and timeless. We don’t ignore the design problem or the client to push a preconceived agenda. The GCP Tower is a great example, because the end result is synthetic. It embodies an optimal structural strategy, enhanced programmatic lease spans, and efficient mechanical locations. It’s a project which distills the complexities of its systems into a singular and legible expression.
On their design toolkits
Colin: Regardless of where I sit in the process, I personally like to sketch in Rhino as part of my own workflow. The larger team tends to come up with sophisticated delivery methods, and we often rely on the younger staff for innovation. I also hand-sketch quite a bit, and I believe that there’s a call and response between 3d and hand-sketching. Sometimes ideas are plan-based, and other times they begin as massings. For example, the Marriott Hall at the St. Alban’s School in Washington, D.C., was a project that stitched together five separate buildings over a site that drops 60 feet in elevation, so it was much simpler to produce a 3d model.
Dan: We use Rhino and Grasshopper (with various plugins) for geometry, 3ds MAX (vray) for visualization, and REVIT for documentation. We have streamlined our design process through the standardization of templates and presets. All of the SOM offices share a central, continuously-evolving resource library, which democratizes the design process for those with less experience. We’re strong advocates of an open system of sharing. The old-school model of hoarding information is null, in my opinion. We don’t have specialized teams that are dedicated to just producing renderings or grasshopper definitions. Our expertise is disseminated throughout the studios, which makes our teams extremely nimble and responsive.
On the state of design software today
Colin: I think it’s frustrating to see things being modeled more fluidly in other software platforms (Rhino, 3ds Max) than in REVIT. Maybe we don’t want a single platform for both conception and documentation, but I’m optimistic that we’ll find a more streamlined solution. In a way, you would hope that the method used during the conception of design was consistent all the way through documentation (similar to hand-drawing). But the current truth is that with Rhino, you’re thinking in points, lines and solids. With REVIT you’re thinking in terms of families and groups. I don’t think there will be a single platform solution soon, so the more effective solution would be to get these different platforms to speak to each more effectively.
Dan: It seems like we’re still struggling with the data management, now that we’re creating such detailed models. We’re sharing huge data sets across many different time zones, and we’re having bandwidth and software limitations. It shouldn’t take forever to sync your model, but it really is a frustrating part of the process. To Colin’s point, we still do not have seamless ways to share information across various software platforms. The process of exporting/importing, or making custom API routines to remake geometry natively has remained largely unchanged. Figuring out how to share information has become an extremely time-consuming part of the process.
Is architecture in need of disruption or innovation?
Colin: I would say licensure. We probably could think of a newer and more streamlined way of getting people a license to practice.
Dan: Once analytical tools are more seamlessly integrated, I think that we will be seeing more “informed” early phase work, which takes into account all of the environmental and performative factors. If we can achieve this in a fluid way, we will be able to run exhaustive iterations with detailed performance criteria, during the earliest part of the process. This will be a huge leap.
On the future of architecture in the next 5–10 years
Colin: I think that there are three roads that architects can now take: The first and more traditional road, is the architect as designer and constructor of buildings. Some firms will seek more and more liability to control the construction process in foreign markets. The second road, is the consideration of design as a ubiquitous practice, and these firms will choose to reduce their liability to design both buildings and products. The third road is seeing design as both real and virtual, as it’s related to the tech sector. As the internet of things emerges, we’ll start to see more architects engaging with the development of new technologies.
Dan: Given that we’re moving towards high-performance buildings with low energy consumption rates, I think our design process will be better informed through early-phase analysis tools. High-performance design will continue to take a central role in our process. In terms of visualization, we’re now creating immersive environments on a continuous basis. VR technology has helped some of our clients make key decisions, given that complex spaces are so easily understood with a single VR experience versus numerous 2d renderings. It will definitely be a powerful and essential new deliverable that will help our clients understand complex spaces.
On the future of SOM in 5–10 years
Colin: Our relationship with the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology (CASE) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) points to architects contributing to problems that go beyond buildings. SOM is built to work on big ideas, big projects, and big socio/cultural shifts as representative of the built environment. You need a creative practice at a scale that allows you to take on complex problems. Similar to Apple, which is a large creative organization under a single umbrella.
Dan: SOM will continue to push the forward the idea of an integrated practice that leverages technology to tackle complex problems. I also think that our design process will be better informed and more intelligent as we streamline our early-phase design work. Across the globe, we’ll continue to centralize our resources to produce results that fit within a singular framework.
On advice they would give their younger selves
Colin: I would have also told myself to travel more, because it’s the best way to educate yourself as an architect. You can’t take it on faith, the idea that you can understand a building by consuming its media; only your physical presence in the space can help you understand it.
Dan: I would have encouraged myself to be more of an “active learner”, and to avoid being dismissive of topics that might seem banal at first. There’s so much that’s involved in making a building work, that you simply don’t have the luxury to pick and choose. There’s a beauty in making things work.