Bruce Graham, architect

On March 6th, SOM’s Bruce Graham passed away.  He was the architect of countless buildings, some not so good, some among the very best architecture created in the last fifty years.  His work in Chicago was most dear to him, especially the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Tower. Both of these are thrilling buildings, but in my opinion they don’t hold a candle to his best work, designed with Walter Netsch, the Inland Steel Building.

glass reflections in the Inland Steel Building, Chicago, IL

It is notable that Graham’s work, like the best of the SOM work, was a close collaboration between architect and engineer, working in the same firm, starting projects at the same time.  The list of accomplished architects from SOM is long:  Gordon Bunshaft, Walter Netsch, Pietro Belluschi, Myron Goldsmith, etc. However, the work of engineer Fazlur Khan, probably the finest engineer of his generation is what really marked the best of SOM’s work.

As an homage to Bruce Graham, let me put here a small quote from him in an interview with Detlef Mertins, (at

“Let me describe the difference between my idea of architecture and a lot of other architects.  Number one, architecture is not painting or sculpture.  Architecture is much more like music, which has an element of time.  Architecture is about space and movement.  It’s four-dimensional.  I learned that very early when I went to Chartres Cahtedral. I walked up the hill and found the square and then the church and walked in, and this fantastic space opened up.  There was a funeral, and they were playing Mozart’s unfinished Requiem.  I had to cry.  Moving through that space with that music was unbelievable.  Space is what architecure is all about.”



Inland Steel Building, Chicago


reflection from exterior column, west face

On a recent trip to Chicago, I paid a visit to the magnificent Inland Steel Building.  For a couple of years I worked diagonally across the street and was assailed by the strong afternoon reflections bouncing off its stainless steel columns and reflective windows and invariably glaring on my drawing board and computer.


partial west face, 12 noon

Designed by Walter Netsch and Bruce Graham at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1956, it marked the first significantly tall building built in the Loop for 30 years.  The core of elevators, stairs and restrooms are housed in a separate, attached tower leaving the office floors clear and open.  Of course, in a perfect correspondence, the entire exterior of the building is clad in the client’s company’s stainless steel.


reflection from exterior column, south face

Visiting this building again I noticed that the curb edges for this building and much of the Loop are banded steel.  Much of downtown Boston is lined with granite curbs.  In both cases a very nice use of a local material and appropriate metaphor for the culture of the place.