According to Ross Wimer, the final speaker of the Rice Design Alliance’s 2009 fall lecture series, the construction of an iconic tower has much the same meaning for a city as hosting the Olympics.
“Sometimes it’s driven by ego,” said Wimer, a design partner in the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP. “Other times it’s a sound marketing sense.”
Wimer concluded the series, Getting High: Towers in Architectures, with insights into the workings of a large firm. The previous three speakers — all highly respected architects — had either founded smaller companies or worked independently. Wimer’s plainspoken and affable presentation belied his lofty status at one of the most distinguished and largest design firms in the world.
SOM has completed more than 10,000 projects in its nearly 75-year history. Founded in 1936, the firm has designed some of the most recognizable buildings of the 20th century and continues to be a leader in the construction of iconic towers.
Some of SOM’s notable designs include the Manhattan House (1950) and the Lever House (1952), both in New York City; as well as the Air Force Academy Chapel (1958) in Colorado Springs, Colorado; the John Hancock Center (1969) and Willis Tower (1973), formerly known as the Sears Tower, both in Chicago and the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai, China (1998).
The iconic skylines of the 21st century will also bear the SOM stamp. The firm has had a hand in such projects as 1 World Trade Center, the main building of the new world trade center in New York City and the new NATO headquarters in Brussels. SOM is also a leader in “green” design with the “zero-energy” Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, China. The tower, scheduled to be finished this year, aims to produce as much energy as it consumes.
Only in his mid-40s, Wimer has risen steadily through the ranks during his nearly 15 years at SOM to become a partner, based in the Chicago office.
Wimer graduated with Distinction from Yale in 1984 and earned a Master of Architecture with Commendation from Harvard University in 1988. At SOM, Wimer has created architectural projects in more than 20 cities on five continents.
Ross Wimer, photo courtesty of som.com
According to his bio on the SOM website, a majority of his designs are for large-scale mixed-use programs such as Leamouth Peninsula in London, Infinity Tower in Dubai, and White Magnolia Plaza in China. Other examples of his wide-ranging work include city planning as in the 93 hectare Marina Bay Master Plan, to airport design with Changi Airport Terminal 3, to industrial design with the New York Standard Streetlight and door hardware for Valli & Valli SPA.
Wimer began his presentation by relaying to the audience of roughly 300 attendees the ways in which SOM has tried to stay current and an attractive destination for young talent.
“How do you keep your edge?” he asked. Wimer said the “scale to our practice is very different from other firms,” which presents unique opportunities and challenges.
Working at a smaller firm typically means that a tower project comes along, if at all, once every several years. At SOM, Wimer said, “four weeks later you are going to get another opportunity.”
The firm attracts many high-profile projects but lawsuits are a heightened concern, Wimer said. “At times it can make your design less ambitious,” Wimer said.
A few years ago, SOM launched a journal to showcase its designs, act as a sort of intramural competition among employees, and give the firm a presence on university campuses. “It keeps us in the mind of students, keeps us in the schools,” Wimer said.
The firm also undertook a revamping of its website. Before the update, prospective clients were judging the firm by what they were seeing on the outdate site. “We were being interviewed through the website,” Wimer said. “The website is as relevant as anything we do.”
Wimer then began discussing his firm’s work. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, SOM was tapped to participate in the designing of new towers in lower Manhattan. There were several rounds of design and ultimately a competition, including a team led by Wimer. SOM did not submit the winning entry, but has since taken hold of the project through the leadership of project architect David Childs, a SOM partner based in New York.
Wimer said that though his team’s design did not carry the day during the competition, the work they did had informed their projects since. Every project carries with it an opportunity for research and development, Wimer said.
Wimer said that his world trade center design drew inspiration from the bridges and industrial buildings of New York City. His team also pushed to have a memorial built right away.
“The saddest thing about the (world trade center) site now is that there’s no memorial there,” Wimer said.
SOM’s designs also called for public space in the tower, making the breathtaking views available to the public.
“Typically in New York, it’s a private experience, “ he said. “It would no longer be a privileged experience,” Wimer said.
The idea did not win many fans, Wimer said. “The idea of public space in tall buildings is talked about now, but back then it was too radical.” Other SOM designs called for adjoined towers, united by a rooftop garden. That particular design called for 16 acres of parks and gardens.
“We were interested in creating a matrix of space that could be used in a flexible way,” Wimer said. The SOM team did not perhaps design a building with the “heroic profile people were expecting,” but were instead concerned “more about the future of the city,” Wimer said.
The attacks on the world trade center in New York changed the way architects designed tall buildings but not the appetite for towers.
According to an Aug. 7, 2006 article in Crain’s Chicago Business, Wimer said weaving security into the design of a building became a high priority.
In the article he is quoted as saying: “Just about every high-rise architect’s design now has a reinforced concrete core. This protects the stair enclosures and the mechanical, electrical and water systems…Reinforced concrete is more resistant to a blast. The drawback is that is can be more expensive.”
But, even in the wake of the tragic attacks, towers had not fallen out of favor, Wimer said in the article.
According to Wimer: “You would think there would be a trend toward keeping a low profile, but there is enormous demand for tall buildings in spite of security risks. Companies want the promotional power of an iconic building. And many municipalities encourage tall buildings because it gives their city recognition. The Petronas Tower, which surpassed the Sears Tower as the tallest building in he world in 1998, put Kuala Lumpur on the map.”
Wimer said that soon after the world trade center competition, SOM entered another competition to design what would be the tallest building in China — at 580 meters— in Shanghai. The building was slated to be mixed-use, with office space and a hotel.
The prospective client also stressed a desire for green features. “China wants to be at the forefront of sustainability,” Wimer said.
One of the more innovative features of the SOM design called for an air-filtering system that included an atrium in the tower to help with the poor air quality in Shanghai. A third of the tower would be dedicated to a wind farm complete with turbines. Ultimately, the builders went with another design, Wimer said.
Wimer next turned to several projects in the Middle East, where the climate presents unique challenges, he said.
“Typically if you go to a glass tower in the Middle East you’ll notice all the furniture pushed back from the windows because the sun is so bright,” Wimer said. The brightness also means that lighting deeper inside the building has to be brighter,” he added.
One of the middle east projects soon caught worldwide attention for its bold design. Construction of The Infinity Tower began in February 2006 in Dubai. When completed the tower will reach 73 stories into the sky.
What distinguishes the tower is that once built it will be the world’s tallest high rise building with a twist of 90˚. Each floor is rotated by 1.2 degrees to achieve the full 90˚ spiral, creating the shape of a helix. The shape of the tower is a variation on HSB Turning Torso in Malmö, Sweden, which also twists exactly 90°.
“The client fell in love with the form of the building,” Wimer recalled.
Photo: Rendering of the Infinity Tower in Dubai
Wimer wrapped up his presentation with reviewing SOM recent contribution to one of its old masterpieces. The firm designed an glass observation deck that floats about 1300 feet above the ground, attached to the former Sears Tower in Chicago.
“The Ledge” is a group of glass boxes on the 103 floor of the building, attached to the outside of the tower, that can be retracted back inside. The boxes can accommodate four to five people at a time, Wimer said, to avoid the claustrophobic feeling that would come with bigger crowds.
“You can see the clouds rolling in,” Wimer said. “It’s sort of a Zen experience.”