What I am thinking: Bill Baker at SOM

William F. Baker, also known as Bill Baker, is one of the leading structural engineers of our generation. Baker was the principal engineer of many buildings including the Burj Khalifa (Dubai, 2004)  and the Broadgate Exchange House (London, 1990) and can be considered as the exponent of the innovative structural engineering  tradition cultivated at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

Sigrid Adriaenssens: What is the SOM approach to design?

Bill Baker: I’m a structural engineer within an architectural engineering firm, and that makes my position at SOM a bit unusual. Many of the structural engineering firms out there are consultancy firms, whereas SOM does both. SOM is special in the emphasis on integrated design where the architects and the engineers work together from the very beginning before there is any kind of solution or scheme. This process enables us to develop things that work with SOM’s philosophy of design. The interpretation of that philosophy will keep morphing over time, but essentially what one would expect in an SOM building would be three attributes: simplicity, structural clarity, and sustainability. It’s great when a building has all three of those attributes. Those values naturally align with our philosophy as structural engineers as well. We prefer a simple solution to a complex one. We design structures that clearly express their function and have efficient structural systems that minimize the use of materials and minimize embodied carbon. Our aesthetic values and our technical values are the same. It’s not just engineering, it’s an engineering philosophy.

Bill Baker collaborating with architects and engineers on the Burj Khalifa at SOM
Bill Baker collaborating with architects and engineers on the Burj Khalifa at SOM. Photo ©SOM

How do you situate yourself in the tradition of North American Engineering?

I don’t really think of myself as a North American engineer, although I am based in North America. I look around the world for my inspiration. As far as role models, one of the greatest structural engineers that I’ve ever met is Jörg Schlaich, an engineer from Germany. I’ve had the opportunity to work under Fazlur Khan for a brief time, and I’ve studied his work in-depth. The people who I’ve found helpful in my career are both engineers and architects within SOM including Myron Goldsmith, Hal Iyengar, Stan Korista, John Zils, and Jin Kim. Jin Kim was an architect who, on my very first project, came to me and was very upset with something I had designed because I had created a stair that was very ugly. He had admonished me that my job is to design structures that architects would feel bad to cover up. He was a very important mentor to me.

SOM Colleague (Left), Fazlur Khan (middle), and Hal Iyengar (right) in the office
SOM Colleague (Left), Fazlur Khan (middle), and Hal Iyengar (right) in the office. Photo ©SOM

I’ve always had mentors from other firms. Bill LeMessurier was a great mentor to me. I spent time with him at several conferences and would call him when I needed advice on ideas related to the industry. I’ve always had a great relationship with Les Robertson, and I was fortunate enough to work with him when he was a peer reviewer on an early project of mine. We had some very interesting conversations.

However, a lot of my mentors are not necessarily designers. In the UK there is Stuart Lipton, a developer, and Peter Roger, his partner who works on the constructability of a project. They’ve been very influential on my work.

From academia, the writings and lectures of Princeton’s David Billington are very important to me.

As far as what perhaps sets me apart is that I’m a great believer in research. It is very important to me to use research to explore new structural concepts that can lead to new architecture. SOM is very active and consistent with that idea, and we have innovated new technologies and concepts that were not previously known in the profession because of our research. We’ve discovered new understandings of the way structures work, and this enables us to design in different ways. That’s something about SOM that sets us apart from other engineering firms.

Bill Baker in SOM_s Wind Tunnel
Bill Baker in SOM’s Wind Tunnel. Photo © SOM

What is your greatest professional achievement and why?

That’s a tough question. When you say “greatest”, it makes other things secondary. I have a lot of things I’m very proud of, and just like you don’t rank your children, I don’t want to rank my achievements. There are some buildings I’ve been involved in that I’m very proud of, like the General Motors entry pavilion in Detroit; the Exchange House in London that spans the tracks at the Liverpool street station; and the Burj Khalifa of course. I’m also very proud of some buildings that were never built, like 7 South Dearborn, because of the interesting concepts we used to design them.

Broadgate Exchange House
Broadgate Exchange House. Photo © Richard Waite
Burj Khalifa
Burj Khalifa. Photo © Nick Merrick | Hedrich Blessing

I greatly enjoy working with artists. They can table our technical input and use it to inform their art. Our work with Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, James Carpenter, and James Turrell was very satisfying to me.

Gravity is a Force to be Reckoned With by Inigo Manglano-Ovalle
Art Installation by Inigo Manglano-Ovalle titled “Gravity is a Force to be Reckoned With”.

That’s on the project side. On the professional side, I think I’ve been helpful in moving the profession towards a more creative way to design. By explaining what it is we do as far as research and discovering new ideas, I believe we’ve helped the profession to keep moving forward.

Within the profession, it is very important for us to promote a technology-based creative process that leads to new architecture. I’ve worked very hard at that by using the soap box here at SOM to share this knowledge in order for the profession to rise to a new level.

What is your favorite structure and why? Could it be improved and how?

The John Hancock Center in Chicago is my favorite structure because of its clarity, the simplicity, and sophistication. The way it meets the ground, the way it tells its story. How would I improve it? I’d improve it by making the floor-to-floor height a little better. The apartments are a little tight! But overall, it’s a great building. My improvements to it would be fairly secondary.

John Hancock Center
John Hancock Center. Photo © Ezra Stoller

What are Maxwell diagrams and Mitchell frames? Why are they important to you and your work?

For me, Maxwell diagrams (Graphic Statics) help the engineer visualize the forces in a way that no other methodology allows. You can visualize the forces much more clearly. Mitchell frames help you find benchmarks so you know if your solution is efficient by comparing it against a Mitchell structure. They also provide structural geometrics that one may not find using a traditional approach. They are both very important and they both lead to a creative process because they give you feedback that you can, through your intuition, create something new. I don’t think intuition comes from nothing, it is an accumulation of knowledge and experience that leads to new ideas. Having that knowledge can lead you to intuitions that you wouldn’t have otherwise.

What would you change in the education of the next generation of structural engineers?

I would put more emphasis on the theory of structures, engineering mechanics, and the behavior of materials: the true technology of our discipline. These are things that will not change unless you invent new materials. A building code has the shelf life of a banana: it’s going to change and it’s going to morph into something different. However, the underlying physics will stay the same.

What is the use of the future structural engineer? If you go back a long time, you had to understand theory because you could not calculate very much. Today, we’re in a computational age where we use a tremendous amount of brain power to manipulate the “box”.  In the future, computation will be so trivial, where it almost becomes unimportant, but the theory will be the paramount thing that the engineer will bring to design.

Bill Baker studying Burj Khalifa model
Bill Baker studying Burj Khalifa model. Photo: Courtesy of SOM

What question are you never asked and would like to be asked? What would be the answer?

If you had not become an engineer, what would you have become?

An auto-mechanic. Fixing something that’s broken is quite satisfying.

 

We would like to thank Bill for taking the time to answer our questions, as well as Danielle Campbell of SOM for transcribing the interview. Questions by Sigrid Adriaenssens, further editing by Tim Michiels.

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