Bruce Graham, architect of Willis Tower and John Hancock Center, dies at age 84

Graham Bruce Graham, the hard-driving architect of the Willis Tower, once the world’s tallest building, and the John Hancock Center, the X-braced giant that became a symbol of Chicago’s industrial might, died Saturday at his home in Hobe Sound, Fla., about 100 miles north of Miami.

He was 84 years old. The cause of death was complications from Alzheimer’s disease, said his son George.

At the peak of his influence, from the 1960s through the 1980s, Graham was the top man at Chicago’s biggest architectural firm, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and had the ear of the city’s leading business leaders and politicians. From that power base, he shaped a legacy that suggests the epitaph on the tomb of Sir Christopher Wren, who is buried in his masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London: “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.”

Searshancock Besides the Willis (originally Sears) Tower and the Hancock Center, which bracket the Chicago skyline like enormous black parentheses, Graham played a major role in designing such landmark Chicago structures as the Inland Steel Building, Three First National Plaza, One Magnificent Mile and the 1986 expansion of McCormick Place.

And Graham’s impact extended beyond individual designs. Though his name is often linked with the planning for the aborted 1992 Chicago World’s Fair, he helped produce the visionary Chicago 21 plan of 1973, which led to such improvements as the Museum Campus.

“He was the Burnham of his generation,” said the Chicago architectural historian Franz Schulze, referring to the legendary Chicago architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham.

Graham’s best designs lent a Chicago-style muscularity to the lean, crisp modernist look brought to perfection by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Sears Tower and the Hancock Center became pop icons, their dark, big-boned look featured on everything from postcards to television news sets. In one measure of its broad-based appeal, the Hancock was nicknamed “Big John,” after London’s “Big Ben.”

Reviewing Sears Tower in 1974, the late Tribune architecture critic Paul Gapp called the skyscraper “a building whose exterior profiles are a bold, vital and exciting departure from orthodox mediocrity; a finely engineered piece of sculpture, even if its interior is largely nondescript in the big-corporation manner.”

Graham’s detractors, who at first included Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman (the two later became allies), termed Graham a businessman rather than an artist. Yet few disputed that Graham was the most powerful Chicago architect of his generation or that he was a leader, along with the SOM structural engineer Fazlur Khan, in shaping supertall structures that were unthinkable to old-fashioned architects wielding T-squares.

Soaring more than a quarter of a mile into the sky, the 1,451-foot, 110-story Sears Tower epitomized Graham’s technical prowess. It reigned as the world’s tallest building from 1973, when construction workers raised a beam autographed by the late Mayor Richard J. Daley to the top of its structural framework, to 1996, when it lost its title to the spire-topped Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The Chicago high-rise remains the nation’s tallest building.

Graham Though Graham was slim and had a kindly, craggy expression, he invariably was described as tough, as forceful as a steamroller. At SOM, the office credo was: “If you disagree with Graham, shut up.”

Graham designed corporate headquarters, universities, hotels and other buildings in London, Barcelona, Cairo, Guatemala City, Seoul, Los Angeles, Houston, Boston, Atlanta, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Wichita, Nashville, Tulsa, Madison, Kalamazoo, Mich. and north suburban Deerfield (the Baxter Travenol Laboratories). He played a major role in planning for London’s vast Canary Wharf development.

Yet his most profound influence came in Chicago, where he sought to express the essence of a pre-high tech city that still forged steel in the mills along Lake Michigan and made clothing and other durable goods in the large loft factories around downtown.

“To my mind, American architecture, born in the Middle West, is an architecture born of people who know how to make things,” Graham said in a 1992 video about Chicago’s skyscrapers.

Born on Dec. 1, 1925 in La Cumbre, Colombia, a small mountain town outside the city of Cali, Columbia, Graham was the son of a Canadian-born international banker and Peruvian mother. He grew up in Puerto Rico, where he demonstrated an early interest in cities, making maps of unchartered slums. Spanish was his first language.

Graham originally came to the United States in the 1940s to study engineering. But during a stint in the Navy from 1943 to 1945, which included a stop at the wartime naval training center at Navy Pier, he discovered that his real interest was architecture.

After serving in the South Pacific, he got his bachelor of architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1948. He then journeyed to Chicago, the hometown of his first wife, and sought out Mies, the master of the steel-and-glass box.

Mies told him to work for Chicago architects Holabird, Root and Burgee because they still knew how to build “permanent buildings,” as opposed to the inexpensive, temporary buildings put up during the Depression and World War II.

Graham did his apprenticeship at the Holabird office from 1949 to 1951, then left for the up-and-coming firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, which was filled with rising young talents, such as Walter Netsch, who would go on to design the Chicago Circle campus of the University of Illinois. At SOM, Graham and Netsch would start a long-running feud.

Inlandsteel “Bruce Graham is very tough,” Netsch told the Tribune in a 1981 interview. “Seldom do you find a good guy who is a great architect.”

Graham replied: “If I had wanted to destroy Walter Netsch, I would have. I could have. As it was, I encouraged him.”

The two rivals will be forever linked because they both had a hand in one of SOM’s finest projects, the Inland Steel Building of 1957 at 30 W. Monroe St. Following the Depression and World War II, it was the Loop’s first office building in more than 20 years.

Graham inherited an early plan from Netsch, who was pulled off the project to work on the U.S. Air Force Academy campus in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The building turned out to be path-breaking, its open expanses of office space made possible by the placement of structural columns on the building’s perimeter and the consolidation of elevators and other services in an adjoining service tower. A leader in using silvery stainless steel as a cladding material, Inland Steel was an aesthetic triumph. The City of Chicago named it an official landmark in 1998, just forty years after its completion.

Elevated to design partner at SOM in 1960, Graham enjoyed other successes, such as the Equitable Building of 1965 at 401 N. Michigan Ave., an olive-colored essay in structural expressionism.

But Graham’s greatest triumph came in the 1970 with the completion of the mixed-use Hancock Center, which housed stores, parking, offices, apartments (now condominiums), an observatory and a bar and restaurant under its 1,127-foot-tall roof.

Located at 875 N. Michigan, the Hancock was originally conceived as a separate office building and apartment building. Upon hearing that the office space would be hard to rent because the site was far from downtown’s train stations, the project’s original developer, Jerry Wolman of Philadelphia, reduced the size of the office building and opted to place apartments on top of it. Graham and Khan did the rest, combining blue-collar muscle and black-tie elegance in a giant truncated obelisk.

Unlike earlier skyscrapers, in which an internal cage of steel carried most of the building’s load, the Hancock’s exterior columns, beams and X-shaped braces formed a rigid tube that did most of the heavy lifting and braced the building against the wind. The arrangement allowed the Hancock to be erected for the same cost as a conventional 45-story office building. And the stacked X-braces offered an instantly recognizable skyline image, quickly silencing detractors who had likened the Hancock to an oil derrick.

Hancock So deeply did the building become ingrained in the Chicago psyche that, in 1989, Mayor Richard M. Daley attacked the owner’s plan to fill in the tower’s sunken plaza and add a three-story retail atrium to its base. “Don’t put a skirt on Big John,” signs carried by protestors said. The plan was replaced by a belowground elliptical plaza that allowed the tower’s monumental synthesis of architecture and engineering to remain undefiled.

Though the Hancock shattered the fragile scale of the old Michigan Avenue and its low-rise, Beaux-Arts buildings, it paved the way for other tall mixed-use buildings, creating a dense, but thriving, high-rise district. “It really is easy to shop from the Hancock building, you just go down the elevators and you’re in the shopping center,” Graham told Betty Blum, who interviewed him in 1997 for the Art Institute of Chicago’s architects oral history project.

In 1999, the Hancock won the American Institute of Architects’ prestigious 25-Year Award, which is annually conferred upon a design of enduring significance that is 25 to 35 years.

Sears Sears Tower offered an even taller variation on the tube theme, consisting not of a single tube, as at the Hancock, but nine interlocked tubes that created the world’s tallest building.

The tower was built for Chicago-based Sears, Roebuck and Co., then the world’s largest retailer, which originally had wanted a building of just 60 stories. (It was renamed the Willis Tower in 2009 in recognition of the British insurance brokerage company that has office space there.)

As Graham, a smoker, related the story of Sears Tower’s beginning, he went to lunch with Khan at the Chicago Club. At the table, he grabbed a handful of cigarettes, cupped some in his hands and placed a smaller group on top, demonstrating what came to be called the “bundled tube” concept. Khan, who is credited with developing the idea, later said that it “constituted a whole new architectural vocabulary.”

The 75-foot square tubes rose together until two dropped off at the 50th floor, two more stopped at the 66th, and three more at the 90, leaving only two to rise to a summit that frequently disappears in low-lying clouds.

The tubes at once delivered column-free office space and created a lightweight framing system that did not put a financial premium on height. They also allowed Sears to occupy the tower’s lower floors while renting the smaller, prestigious upper floors, with their uninterrupted views, to law firms and other tenants.

The tower brought the world’s tallest building title back to Chicago from New York, where the Empire State Building had held it for decades and the World Trade Center had grabbed it briefly in the early 1970s. And Sears won critical praise, at least initially, because its strong skyline profile broke out of the straitjacket of the steel-and-glass crackerbox.

But as time passed, Sears’ luster dimmed. It barren ground-level plaza was rarely used. Many Sears employees found their new home antiseptic compared with Sears’ old low-rise headquarters on the West Side.

“Sears workers used to brag about the fact that each light in the massive West Side complex was turned off at night in the spirit of corporate loyalty, but now a computer turned off the lights,” Donald R. Katz wrote in “The Big Store: Inside the Crisis and Revolution at Sears.” “Instead of the sound of children at play after school, a voice came over the intercom speakers at four o’clock every day to tell you if it was raining outside, because it was often impossible to tell from inside the upright city.

The final blow came when the Sears Merchandise Group left the tower in 1992 for a low-rise office complex in northwest suburban Hoffman Estates.

Graham rejected the idea that his design was inhumane. “I don’t care whether people say that or not, it doesn’t matter,” he told Blum. “The insults that all the big buildings have had to endure in the past makes me feel good.”

By the time Sears opened, a major revolt against modernism was underway in American architecture–one that would shake Graham and SOM’s dominance in Chicago.

With the advent of postmodernism in the 1970s, architects such as Philip Johnson and Michael Graves rejected the sterile, steel-and-glass boxes turned out by Mies and his followers and embraced decoration, whimsy and eclecticism, epitomized by the scooped-out “Chippendale” top of Johnson’s AT&T Building in New York City.

Graham responded with tentative departures from the Miesian mold, such as the slope-roofed 33 W. Monroe St. of 1980, the first office building with three stacked atriums.

A more definitive break came in the granite-clad Three First National Plaza of 1981, located at Dearborn and Madison Streets. Its sawtooth shape created numerous corner offices. In One Magnificent Mile, a 1983 trio of towers at 940-980 N. Michigan, Graham recycled the bundled tube concept of Sears, but dressed the structure in pink granite.

Yet the Quaker Tower of 1987 (now 321 N. Clark St.) marked a reversion to boxy steel-and-glass modernism. And the McCormick Place North expansion of 1986, with its diamond pattern expressing the building’s concealed truss system, represented “a faint echo” of Mies’ unbuilt Chicago convention hall project of the 1950s, according to the American Institute of Architects “Guide to Chicago.”

Museumcampus If Graham’s architectural influence was waning by the early 1980s, his urban planning impact was not.

He already had worked with SOM partner William Hartmann on the Chicago 21 Plan of 1973, which recommended several major public works that would subsequently transform Chicago’s lakefront: the rebuilding of once-rundown Navy Pier into a recreation attraction for families, the straightening of the notorious Lake Shore Drive “S” curve and the relocation of another section of the Drive to create the Museum Campus.

The plan, whose name reflected its desire to prepare Chicago for the 21st Century, was commissioned by the Chicago Central Area Committee, a powerful group of downtown business leaders that Graham himself would lead in the mid-1980s.

From 1980 to 1985, Graham was at the center of another controversial civic undertaking–the planned 1992 Chicago World’s Fair. Business leaders wanted Chicago to recapture the glory of the great Chicago world’s fairs of 1893 and 1933-34 and to demonstrate that Chicago was more than another aging Rust Belt city. Mayor Jane Byrne backed their plans for an extravaganza along the Near South Side lakefront.

With backing from the city’s business community, Graham and SOM, aided by Tigerman and other notable architects, drew up a master plan that included 500 acres of lakefill and huge exhibition buildings. The new lakefill would have created an archipelago of islands and lagoons, a proposal that civic groups had long advocated.

But community activists criticized the project, calling it a grab by downtown business interests for resources needed by the neighborhoods. The late Mayor Harold Washington was too busy fighting the white-ethnic block of aldermen in “Council Wars” to put much effort into a project started under Byrne. Illinois House speaker Michael Madigan delivered the final blow by withholding the state legislature’s financial support.

The fair, which was declared dead in 1985, represented Graham’s last major Chicago undertaking.

In the late 1980s, Graham led SOM’s master plan for the Canary Wharf docklands area of London. He also handled the firm’s mix-used Broadgate complex in the same city.

Graham retired from SOM in 1989 and started the firm of Graham and Graham with his second wife Jane, who died in 2004. “My mother was an architect in her own right. She was in charge of the interiors department at SOM,” George Graham said. “My mother was his partner in more than just a marital sense. When he would design buildings, they would talk about them and she would critique.”

Graham was a fellow of the American Institute of Architects and a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, the Urban Land Institute, and the University of Pennsylvania. He was chairman of the university’s board of overseers.

In his retirement, Graham lived in a low-slung modern house, set on stilts, in the Florida town of Hobe Sound. Marshes, pines and palmettos made up his “front yard.”

When a reporter from the Fort Pierce (Florida) Tribune called on him in 2004, nearly three years after hijacked jets toppled the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 2001, Graham demonstrated that he had lost none of his fire or self-assurance.

“If that plane would have hit the Sears Tower,” he told his visitor, “the plane would have fallen, not the tower.”

Survivors include his three children: George, of New York City; Lisa Graham Langlade-Demoyen of Paris; Mara Graham Dworsky of Altadena, Ca; his sister, Margaret Graham Lewis of Gibson Island, Md.; and six grandchildren.

A private memorial service will be held in Hobe Sound, Fla. A memorial service will be held in Chicago, at a date to be determined.


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