Bruce Graham obituary

Link: Bruce Graham obituary

    Innovative architect whose skyscrapers marked city skylines around the world

Few architects can legitimately lay claim to having shaped the urban landscape of several cities in their lifetimes, but Bruce Graham, the leading partner of the US design firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), who has died aged 84 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, certainly can. With an iron fist and an all-consuming passion, Graham ruled one of the most influential architectural practices of the late 20th century from Chicago, the city that synthesises the visual energy, technical inventiveness and economic clout of 20th-century modernism in architecture.

Graham’s designs for SOM, which at their best possess these special qualities, mark the skylines of Chicago and London, but also Barcelona, Hong Kong and many other US cities. In Chicago, the city of skyscrapers, he authored its two most canonical structures ? the delicately stacked volumes of the Sears Tower (for 24 years the world’s tallest building, recently renamed the Willis Tower) and the tapering black Hancock Tower, with its distinctive criss-cross bracing disappearing into the Illinois sky.

In London, he gave shape to large parts of the 1980s building boom, designing nine buildings and the masterplan for the Broadgate office complex at Liverpool Street station and the Ludgate development near St Paul’s Cathedral (for Stuart Lipton’s development company, Rosehaugh Stanhope), as well as the initial plans for the Canary Wharf financial district in London’s Docklands and the beautifully landscaped Stockley Park, near Heathrow. Outside London, he designed the restrained and elegant headquarters for Wills Tobacco (1971) in Bristol and the Boots Pure Drug Company headquarters, Nottingham (1968), both collaborations between SOM and the British architectural practice YRM.

Quick-witted, curious and always alert, Graham seemed to capture the spirit of the age from the mid-1970s to the 1990s. In a sense, he reinvented the role of the architect, recognising that the job is just as much about city-making and power-broking as it is about pure design talent, which Graham possessed in spades. His London client Lipton is adamant that Graham’s understanding of how buildings are put together, how structure and form are integrated, and how any design must respond to its social context, changed the way commercial buildings have been made in the UK from the 1980s on.

Born in La Cumbre, Colombia, to a Peruvian mother and a Scottish banker father, Graham was brought up in Puerto Rico. As a child, he dreamed of building cities. As a teenager, he took pleasure in mapping the local slums, showing an early interest in the social and spatial politics of city life. He was educated in the US as an engineer and an architect and then joined the US navy during the second world war. “I thought I had landed in a dream,” he noted in an interview in 1997, when reminiscing about his first impressions of Chicago and the midwest, where he saw his first building more than 10 storeys high. Two decades later, he was responsible for designing the tallest and third tallest buildings in the world.

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Graham moved to Chicago and developed a fast-track career within SOM ? one of the world’s largest architectural practices ? becoming a general partner in 1960 and leading the firm during the next two decades. In these early days, he forged links with Mies van der Rohe and other European modernist architects who had fled Nazi Germany, and was hugely influenced by their sparse, minimalist and technologically advanced design ethic.

But Graham never saw his projects at SOM as single pieces. They were part of a continuum of collaboration and experimentation that spanned his whole career, relying on the input from his trusted engineer Fazlur Khan (“the best in the world, who understood mathematics and architecture”) and his fellow, equally talented design partners at SOM, such as Gordon Bunshaft and Myron Goldsmith.

From the inspired, minimalist designs for the Inland Steel building (1958) in Chicago (still regarded as one of the finest postwar US buildings) to the exposed structural arches of Exchange House (1990) that effortlessly span 80 metres above the railway tracks leading to Liverpool Street station in London, Graham’s buildings reveal a desire to push forward the boundaries of experimentation in construction, technology and architectural expression. His design philosophy reflected a lifelong interest in collaboration ? with engineers, artists, landscape designers, developers, clients and other architects ? emphasising his belief that buildings do not stand alone, but always belong to a context.

But those of us who worked alongside Graham, as I did as an adviser to SOM and the Chicago Institute for Architecture and Urbanism in the late 1980s, recognised a generosity of spirit behind the aggressive “city-builder” who inherited the traditions and methods of Daniel Burnham, the great urban visionary who created the 1901 Plan of Chicago. Graham became chairman of the Chicago Central Area Plan in 1980 and worked closely with Mayor Richard Daley (father of the current incumbent) and Chicago’s business community to bring about change at the heart of the city he loved.

Graham was deeply critical of the negative impact of mid-20th-century planning, which devastated urban communities with the construction of freeways, the expansion of the suburbs and the emptying of city centres. His vision with the Chicago Central Area Plan was to reverse this trend, creating new downtown residential neighbourhoods, often bucking the market with radical ideas ? such as the construction of the Hancock Tower in a fringe location ? which brought investment to neglected areas of the city. Today, Chicago is seen as a US metropolitan success story, with more people moving back into the centre, as Graham had envisaged decades ago.

Graham possessed the raw intellect of a streetfighter, rather than the polished mannerisms of a design professional. He enjoyed spending time with mayors, developers and corporate clients, but was scornful of elitism. He often spoke frankly and harshly. Frank Lloyd Wright, the doyen of American architecture, was, in Graham’s mind, “a mean old man”. Many architects were simply “stupid”. But he was equally generous with those he admired and went out of his way to help them, especially his old friend Frank Gehry.

Behind the hot-headed, hard-speaking facade was a softer, psychologically astute and socially engaged individual who cared passionately about the world. He had strong opinions on politics and delighted at the demise of imperialism, as he saw it. Dedicated to his family, he referred to his Austrian wife Jane, a distinguished interior architect, as his “No 1 critic”. Graham’s softer personality came out regularly. He often spoke Spanish, hugging a glass of whiskey among colleagues, grimacing or giggling at the stories of common friends and enemies. One of his favourite phrases was the basketball epithet “slam dunk”. In many ways, Bruce’s life was a slam dunk for urban architecture, and this is how he wished to be remembered.

Jane died in 2004. Bruce is survived by his son, George, and daughters, Lisa and Mara.

? Bruce John Graham, architect, born 1 December 1925; died 6 March 2010