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Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

An architectural model of SOM's Inland Steel Building (1957), a modernist glass and steel framed mid-level skyscraper.
Also known as
S.O.M., SOM, Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill

The architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) was known for popularizing modernist commercial architecture in the postwar United States—and later around the globe—with prominent steel and glass office buildings like the 1952 Lever House in New York and the 1957 Inland Steel Building in Chicago as well as large-scale projects like the master plan for a new town in Oak Ridge, Tennessee in 1949. Founded in Chicago in 1936 by Louis Skidmore and Nathaniel Owings, SOM opened an office in New York the following year, and later expanded to San Francisco, London, and cities around the world. One of the firm’s groundbreaking innovations was a multidisciplinary corporate structure that incorporated architecture, engineering, and planning, which allowed SOM to realize complex projects like the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado (1954–1963) and University of Illinois Circle Campus in Chicago (1961–1970).

Collaboration between architectural designers and structural engineers has been a hallmark at SOM, producing innovative skyscrapers that have transformed skylines around the world. In Chicago, project lead Bruce Graham and structural engineer Fazlur Khan developed tubular frame systems—for the John Hancock Center (now 875 North Michigan Avenue, 1969) and the Sears Tower (now Willis Tower, 1973), leading to the firm’s work with supertall buildings like the Burj Khalifa (2010) in Dubai. The SOM Chicago office has also served as an important training ground for many local modern architects, such as Harry Weese, Gertrude Kerbis, Stanley Tigerman, and John Vinci. SOM has had a major role in the development of the Art Institute’s campus, including partner Walter Netsch’s design for a 1976 expansion of the museum and numerous designs for office and gallery renovations over the years. 

The Art Institute’s collection of drawings and models for seminal projects by SOM is complemented by a large body of research material in the the Ryerson and Burnham Archives, including the Bruce J. Graham Papers and Fazlur Khan Collection as well as oral histories for Graham, Khan, and fellow SOM architects Gordon Bunshaft, Natalie de Blois, Myron Goldsmith, and Walter Netsch. 

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