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Book Review: SOM Journal 1: An Outside Jury of Architects, Artists, and Critics Judge Offers Objective Assessments of In-house Entries for the Debut of a Unique Monograph Series

by ArchNewsNow
April 16, 2002

In a departure from the typical firm monograph, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill has launched a new annual publication, SOM Journal. What sets it apart from most other tomes of this genre is not just the content (it focuses on only five current projects), but who selected the content – and why.


The New York office issued a Call for Entries, sent in December 2000 to SOM partners in all of the firm’s offices and disciplines: architecture, engineering, urban design, and interiors. Any project in design or construction during 1999 and 2000 was eligible for review. As with any professional competition (and certainly not in the tradition of a monograph), the in-house entries were judged by an independent, interdisciplinary jury.


The jury that met in New York City in March 2001 to judge 47 entries included: structural engineer Cecil Balmond of Ove Arup; architect, historian, and critic Kenneth Frampton; artist Jenny Holzer; architect Jesse Reiser; and architect and critic Wilfried Wang, who served as moderator. The group established its own selection criteria and juried the works; we are assured, without participation or influence from any member of SOM.


The five projects selected for recognition and discussion in SOM Journal 1 are: Pennsylvania Station, Kuwait Police College, 350 Madison Avenue, Marina Bay Office, and Changi International Airport Terminal 3. One research project, “Case Studies: Glass and Steel Structural Systems,” was also chosen to highlight an area of research being undertaken by the firm.


What makes SOM Journal 1 a particularly insightful book is the independent critique by the jurors of not just the selected projects, but also their observations on a number of other entries. This is provided in transcript form (obviously edited for length only), accompanied by at least one image, that gives the commentary an immediate, candid, and refreshingly informed tone – the reader is like a “fly-on-the-wall,” which, truth be told, is what just about every entrant in any competition would like to be. (There must have been some bruised egos around some SOM offices). In addition, the book devotes more than 20 richly illustrated pages to each project.


SOM Journal 1 also acknowledges the firm’s distinguished history by including an interview with retired SOM Partner Walter Netsch conducted by Detlef Mertins, Director of the Graduate Program of Architecture at the University of Toronto, in which Netsch discusses his famous Air Force Academy project and his “Field Theory” approach to design.


Wilfried Wang’s introduction, titled “External Criticism,” acknowledges SOM’s unique (and courageous) approach “…as a process of continuing evaluation, the annual review of the most innovative projects of the practice will surely be seen by all – inside and outside the office of SOM – as an unprecedented critical discourse on architectural quality and themes. The five invited critics understood this selection process as part of the practice’s interest in raising the design profile both in and outside the practice, hence SOM Journal…Since the review process is to continue next year with the same jury, time will tell whether it will have an impact on the architectural discourse at large and on the internal debate within SOM.”


SOM Partner Roger Duffy conceived the project, with the support of all the SOM Partners and with the help of Associate Partner Ross Wimer and Senior Designer Scott Duncan. “We wanted to establish a way to evaluate our firm’s work that would foster design dialogue and recognize the excellence to which SOM aspires,” Duffy explains. “The distinguished outside panel that judged the projects has given us something we all wanted – an objective assessment of our work.”


SOM’s New York office organized and hosted the deliberations for SOM Journal 1. The Chicago office has issued the Call for Entries for next year’s Journal.


Founded in Chicago in 1936, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP has undertaken more than 10,000 architecture, engineering, interior design, urban design, and planning projects in more than 50 countries. Throughout its history, SOM has been recognized with more than 800 awards for quality and innovation, 125 of which have been received in the past 10 years. In 1996, SOM received the American Institute of Architects’ Firm Award, recognizing the distinguished design work of the firm as a whole.  As the first winner of this award when it was established in 1961, SOM is the only firm to have received this prestigious honor twice. The firm currently has offices in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, London, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Indianapolis, and Sao Paolo.

(click on pictures to enlarge)

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Included in SOM Journal 1: Renovation and Addition, Pennsylvania Station, New York City, designed 1998-2001

(Rendering by K+D Lab)
Bank Headquarters, Marina Bay, Singapore, designed 2000-01

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Office Building, 350 Madison, New York City, designed 1999-2000

(Rendering by pixelbypixel)
Terminal 3 Building, Changi International Airport, Singapore, designed 2000-01

Kuwait Police Academy, designed 1998-2000

SOM Journal 1

© 2002