Bruce Graham, 1925-2010

Bruce Graham and his greatest collaborator, engineer Fazlur Khan

The Tribune reported yesterday that Bruce Graham, former partner with Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill and lead architect of the Sears and Hancock towers downtown, died at the age of 84.  Franz Schulze referred to him as the “Burnham of his generation,” and that’s probably not far from true.  Graham was a designer and administrator, a planner and a relentless publicist, all of which created as formidable a force in Chicago design and culture as Burnham was in his day.

Graham was famously tough, and carried on a lifelong feud with other partners at SOM, but that quality also got things done, and the thorough honing of a single idea–expressed wind bracing at the Hancock, a spanning arch in his office block at Bishopsgate, or the relentlessness of the Sears Tower’s “bundled tubes” shown on its elevation–all made his buildings distinctive and successful.  When he tried to tone things down, as with Sears’ infamous “lunchbox” entry in the mid-1980s, it was obvious that he was going against his instincts.

I had exactly one encounter with Graham, as a young intern at SOM’s office in 1990.  The highlight of the summer was an hour-long lunch with Graham and the rest of the intern class. He was in the process of retiring, and seemed to enjoy the back-and-forth with us.  He took our questions, answered some pointed critiques of Sears, and told stories about his working relationship with Faz Khan.  Then, when it was time to get back to work, one of my fellow interns asked one last question.  What one thing, Mr. Graham, would make Chicago a better city?  All of us craned forward, waiting to hear what the force behind the Museum Campus and innumerable master plans would say.  A 3,000 foot skyscraper?  A new stadium?  Masterplan?  Graham didn’t hesitate.  “I’d slap a $&#$ five-dollar tax on every &*#$ gallon of gasoline sold in this city,” he said.  Food for thought.

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