Design Dialogues: SOM [Recap]

Yesterday, I attended ‘Design Dialogues’ curated by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, which was an enlightening discussion between Metropolis magazine Publisher/Editor in Chief Susan S. Szenasy & SOM’s Bill Baker, structural and civil engineering partner and head of the engineering team at SOM Chicago. These two are at the top of their respective professions, so naturally I was hanging on every word. Here are the highlights:

– Szenasy steered the 90 minute conversation from Baker’s early years to SOM’s philosophy as exemplified by various projects (seen above in the gallery). Baker’s emphasis on the essence of SOM being the platform for which each project is created from was a refreshing reminder that the most successful companies have a very clear essence (or “Why?”) that every decision is aligned with. Baker even said that the firm’s partners got together years ago to make sure everyone was on the same page on their essence: Management. Design. Technology.

– Baker elaborated on technology, saying (and I’m paraphrasing) that buildings should express the technology of the time and into the future. It’s up to technology to create new ideas, and that architects are running out of new ideas. He adds that SOM is researching new structural systems to create new architecture, always thinking about how even the core of structure can be improved or approached from a different direction.

– There were a lot of “fun facts” (as I like to call them) exclaimed by Baker on some specific projects SOM has worked on. For instance, he was the structural engineer of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, and said that in the design process, the Burj Khalifa actually grew in height after SOM won the winning bid — a height equal to about that of the Eiffel Tower (1,063 ft). They tested it in a wind tunnel and saw that the extra height helped the structure sustain the outside forces.

Burj Khalifa, Dubai | SOM (Bill Baker, structural engineer)

– Baker posed this great question for designers: What is it you value and how does it relate to your aesthetic? This question happened at the end of the conversation, revisiting my first highlight of Baker’s emphasis of starting at your core values. Baker’s answer, for example, included values like simplicity, hierarchy, elegance, and efficiency. He also recalled a first-hand experience of working with James Turrell on the previously GWHH-featured “Twilight Epiphany”. Turrell took something his mother told him, “Step into the light”, quite literally, in addition to its spiritual meaning his mother intended to pass on. As a result, Turrell has used light as a medium, and created tranquil skyspaces and user experiences over the years.

– Piggybacking off this, Szenasy emphasized in her conclusion that everything in design connects together. She marveled at how Baker is responsible for more than just the structure of a building, but how those decisions relate to the other social relationships of interacting with the building. As such, Baker and the SOM Structural Group takes great pride in researching and learning more about these other variables to help guide their design decisions. I can’t resonate with this approach enough — design really is everything.


All in all, I came away with a greater understanding of not only some of SOM’s largest projects to date, but more importantly, a first-hand understanding of SOM’s approach and essence as eloquently explained by Bill Baker. Susan Szenasy was successful in bringing their Metropolis cover story on SOM to life — a must-read if you got this far. Hope you came away with something too!

Metropolis Magazine's Susan Szenasy & SOM's Bill Baker
Metropolis Magazine’s Susan Szenasy & SOM’s Bill Baker

ICYMI: Previous recaps on Gensler’s ‘Dialogues’ Discussion and Luftwerk’s Lecture with Mas Context