grou serra architecture

William F. Baker with Wiel Arets
Edited by Grou Serra

Interview prepared with Agata Siemionow as part of the Illinois Institute of Technology Dean's Lecture Series. Photography Credits: Illinois Institute of Technology

Grou Serra So let's start. This is probably a fairly generic question, but if you could talk a little bit about the dialog and relationship between architects and engineers, and the eventual challenges but also rewards that happen on both ends?

Bill Baker You know, my experience, working with architects - I'm a structural engineer, my experience with architects is, mostly, but not completely, through working at SOM. Now Skidmore, Owings & Merrill is an integrated practice, so you know, architects, engineers of various strives - structural, mechanical, electrical, sustainability people, but also urban planners, interior designers, graphic designers, I'm forgetting someone I'm sure. Anyway, so you know, I kind of professionally grew up in an integrated practice, that's kind of my basis. One of the things that we also try to do is we try to start every project with everybody at the table. Does it always happen? No. But it happens often. Like we had a kick-off meeting a week ago and we had, you know, civil engineers - of course, we had civil engineers, interior designer, urban planner, structural engineer, several architects. All sitting around the table, all seeing the project at the same time, at the beginning together. And everyone then, just free association about their discipline and everybody else's discipline too, okay, frankly. We all have comments on, I talk about the landscaping, you know. It's pretty loose. That's what I like. And at SOM, we're kind of a self-selecting society, we're architects who like working with engineers, and engineers who like working with architects. And so I find it very rewarding. Now, what are the downsides. You work the problem pretty hard. And there's a lot of back and forth; maybe more than.. you know. I think you get better design, but it may not be the least labor. Because you do have a lot of conversations, and a lot of impromptu conversations. And around the office we have these things called kindergarten tables, where we have impromptu things. They're like, when you were a kid you go and you color at a kindergarten table, so these are like, these tables where 8 people can sit at, other people stand behind, are just scattered around the office for impromptu collaborations and stuff.

Grou Serra So then, from an engineering point of view, do you see your practice as strictly dealing with loads effectively, or do you actually have an architectural agenda when you create spaces?

Bill Baker Well, I mean we certainly.. Well, okay. I certainly care what it looks like, you know. There are always creating an expression or a space, or telling a story. You know, this part of the structure. And you know, how to communicate how buildings work, okay? How do you express the technology of a building. In my case, the technology being structure. How do you tell the story of the building, of the story of the structure, and certainly, you have to make it work. But, I'm gonna talk about that in my lecture later today, the... just size, is the least important step. It's absolutely essential, but otherwise unimportant. You know, you have to - which is a paraphrase of Harry Cross, by the way, so, it's about coming up with a system that works with all the other functions of the building. Because you know, if you do the perfect structure it may not be the best building. If you do the perfect architecture it may not be the best building; the perfect interior may not be the best building. The perfect mechanical system is probably not gonna be the best building. So it's like, knowing what's important to what you're doing, but also knowing when and where you can give, to make the building better than just holding the line on some concept or some idea. But also, sometimes you also have to challenge the criteria of your colleagues, don't underestimate their ability to solve a problem, you know, that you're causing for them. You know, they maybe do something very clever, you know. But if it looks like they cant' deal with what they got, maybe you have to compromise on your side for the good of the project. So there's a lot of.. It's more than just coming up with a structural solution.


Grou Serra So, now we're going to talk a little bit about tall buildings. Super-tall buildings - this is again about the relationship between architects and engineers, but they are so heavily engineered, what role do architects have in such an engineered project?

Bill Baker A very important role. And part of it is, the thing about very tall buildings, or anything that's large, is that, if you have something that doesn't make sense, the building is probably not gonna get built. It's an existential problem, okay? If you're structure is too complicated, too expensive, too difficult to build, there's a very high probability the building is not going to happen and everybody is just wasting their time. So, the structure is very, very dominant, but boy, there's a million solutions. And these million solutions have different architectural implications. And so, a lot of time we'll do like a Chinese menu of solutions, we do this, we do that, okay. And so, if we do this solution, what are the architectural representations, or if we go with this architecture, what are the structural.. so you have a Chinese menu of architecture, also. How does that influence the structure. And I have to say, when you sit at these kindergarten tables, you come to the meeting with your idea, everybody else comes with their ideas, and even if you try to explain your idea to somebody else, and they hear the word you say and they repeat it back to you, it will not be what you said. Your idea will be filtered through their idea and it'll come back something neither one of you had to start with, and I can say I've never got out from a table, coming away with what I sat down in the table with. But also, there's certain principles that we try to explain to everybody else, you know, what matters and what's maybe not as important. And what are the things we have to look out for. But it's the whole team, it's definitely the whole team.

Grou Serra You seem very critical of what you call willful excess. Could you elaborate a little bit more on what exactly willful excess is, and - if you do, how do you relate it to super-tall buildings.

Bill Baker Oh that's a good question. Because you know, it is a serious question about... Willfulness, okay.. I hope that architecture is substantive, okay? And for me what is substantive, coming for the jurisdiction I come from, is something that, the reason the buildings look like they do is because of what the buildings are. It either related to the function, the technology or whatever. But not, it doesn't relate directly to the ego of the designer. Or the willfulness of the designer to make something. And I will talk about this a little bit tonight, that's it's not... I'm fairly critical of willfulness, particularly when it's very wasteful. When you're wasting resources, you're making giant carbon footprints because of your ego. Now, you get to tall buildings, okay? So that's certainly a valid question. And, I'm not totally clear on that. The ethical dilemma of a tall building. At a certain height, they're very economical; you get density, they're good for cities, you get people closer together, increase culture, something like that. For me, the example I like to use is the Eiffel Tower. That's a very expensive way to build a restaurant, okay? But Paris wouldn't be Paris, and France or Europe or the world would not be what it is without the Eiffel Tower. So, let's say that that one was okay. WHen is it not okay? And I have to say, the Eiffel Tower expresses its technology so from an aesthetic point of view, I don't see as willful, but certainly it was a major act, to create such an edifice. I think it's open to discussion. I think if there were like five Eiffel Towers, in Paris, it wouldn't be so good. So I think the world needs inspiration and special buildings and things that make things different, but I'm not sure you need a lot of them, either. You know, the Burj Khalifa its success is actually beyond the building quite a bit. What it did for Dubai, and for the UAE, and for our developer, our client for that matter, it's huge. ABsolutely huge. And what's interesting, is that everyone wants to be around it, you know. Our client made a lot more money, or most of its money on all the buildings around it, that are looking at the building as an object. There's the water show in front, and the light show on the building. And if you get a chance, look at the light show they do on New Year's Eve, it's unbelievable. And so, it's created a huge value for that economy, for thos people. I hope it's been inspirational, so I think I'm okay with that one, alright? I don't feel overly guilty that I've done something that was very extreme. But having said that, for what it is, it was very efficiently done. Is it as efficient as a forty story building? No. But it's pretty efficient.

Grou Serra You also worked on quite a few long-span structures. And long span structures gather less attention than high-rises. Can you talk a little bit about their potential and their limitations?

Bill Baker I actually like long span a lot. You say they don't grab as much attention, well I always.. they always grab my attention. I suppose you're right, maybe, tall buildings aren't as famous.. I mean, long span aren't as famous as tall buildings. No I really like tall buildings [sic. long span] and there's a lot, a lot of room for creativity in a long span. A lot. Because you have much more complex boundary conditions. Design is a search for constraints. Well, a tall building, its a cantilever. That's it. There's one load path down. Whereas a long span, you got multiple, you know, do you span it this way, or that way. There's a lot of.. And then how are you going to set the rules and how you constrain it. And I think there's a lot, in fact we're doing a lot of research right now on how to do, how to create new design methodologies to do long span. Like shells, or grid shells, and stuff like that. In a way that's accessible, and I will talk about that tonight, without having to be a PhD who understands four third differential, and differential geometry. How can you actually design a good shell structure? Without having to do, deal with that ugly stuff. It's actually beautiful stuff. Mathematics is very beautiful, but it's somewhat unaccessible.

Grou Serra So, what are your goals and the process for reducing the amount of materials and especially embodied energy when we're talking about sustainable tall building?

Bill Baker Geometry. That's what I'm going to talk about tonight. The single most important parameter in structure is geometry. And geometry is where architecture and structure come together. I mean, you describe a space, you do it in geometric terms. You describe a building, it's always in geometric terms. And, a lot of the buildings we do and express are very geometric, in a sense. Once you pick a geometry, you've locked in, you've built a wall on how efficient you can be. Once a geometry's set, you can do all you want to do, but you cannot get beyond the limitations of that geometry. I'll show you some examples tonight. And those can be huge. So number one, how do you come up with the right geometry, the right system and say.. Let me show you an example of a very simple problem, where one solution has sixty percent more material than the other, and you wouldn't think that just looking at it. Sixty percent more! talk about carbon. Get the right geometry. And one of the things you're going to find is that you're going to see geometry that you're not used to seeing, and maybe we should get used to seeing them. Because, before, we couldn't find them, and now we can find these geometries. So how can we find these geometries and express them and make them natural to us? And they're very organic, they look very organic in nature. And I'm not a big fan of biomimicry, where you say that's a nice looking plant so I'm going to make a building out of it. I take a different approach. The reason that.. Read D'Arcy Thompson. D'Arcy Thompson was as much a mathematician and physicist as he was a biologist. He gets into all these, we call them engineering mechanics, he gets into the real physics of materials, and stuff like the surface tension and stuff like that. The reason those creatures look like they do is because they're solving a problem of physics. Can you describe the problem your building has, the physics problem of it. The loads its trying to transmit. And can you use tools that will help you find the solution to those things. And you'll find that those solutions look very organic, but they're not adapted from a plant or something. Maybe you'll find a plant that has the same problem and will have the same solution. But it's a different approach. I do respect people or are trying to adapt these things, you know, trying to figure out, from plants, learn from plants, and stuff like that. But for me, it doesn't work.


Grou Serra Last question. Which material would you say has the most potential to push boundaries of what we are producing as architects and engineers today?

Bill Baker Wow. That's a loaded question. Can I ramble for minute?

Grou Serra Sure.

Bill Baker Apparently we're limited on the modulus of elasticity of steel. Apparently there's something molecular you can't get beyond it. You can increase the strength, but not the stiffness. So I think in the end that's going to be some of the limitation on it. Glass is pretty amazing stuff. It weighs as much as granit, has the stiffness of aluminum and you can see through it. You know, wood, or bamboo. Let's go to bamboo for a minute. Bamboo is very very strong if we get past the gluing problems. It's better than normal wood, but you use.. From a climate point of view it may not be so great because of all the glues. Because you can't get big pieces, you have to glue, butt it up with a lot of small pieces. Certainly timber, we're exploring a lot in that. This is kind of funny, because I love steel, just from a mathematical point of view. And I'm kind of a steel guy, but actually concrete maybe. Because concrete is something you can play with the chemistry and really make it different. In fact, I don't know, we should come up with a new name for it, because the stuff we're making today is not the stuff that's on the sidewalk. You're getting very very strong materials, very stiff materials. It's getting stiffer and stiffer. You're getting higher and higher modulus. We got like, very very high modulus of elasticity on the Burj. Still, it's not as high as steel, it's one fifth of steel. But it appears to have a lower carbon footprint than steel. Or aluminum, I like aluminum but it's pretty.. it's a energy hog. So you know, aluminum's... I wish it was steel, but it might be concrete. But certainly, timber's going to be the thing for the next decade or two. I think we'll really figure out how to use timber in a modern way. And that's a good thing. because if we can store carbon in buildings that last a long time, versus, you know... that's the way to go. I actually try not to have favorites. When I go to design, I'm completely agnostic about the material.

Wiel Arets You mentioned steel, you mentioned concrete. The big difference between these two materials I think, not maybe only from a structural point of view but from an, its more architecture point of view, it's that concrete has mass, has accumulation. So it has a lot of advantages I would say, that steel does not have because it's not.. there's no accumulation for example. I think the reason why you.. the answers you gave, you give these answers usually as an engineer. Structural engineer.

Bill Baker But I'm also a minimalist, so I like the minimalist stuff. So that's why there are other reasons, like steel I can make a lot smaller. But okay. One of the things I did several years ago. I was working on the Roden Crater, with James Turrell, the artist. And he and I were making a pitch to some potential donors, and this is a part of the Roden Crater that hasn't be built yet, it's a later edition, it's called the funeral. And we're making this pitch to some potential donors and we came in a little bit after our idea was jotted a little bit and our goal was to give it order, and hierarchy, at least that's what we took on as our goal, our general goal was to make it build-able or better, and we did that by cleaning it up and making hierarchy and order and clarity-, and the like. So we were describing, you know, what we were doing to these potential donors, and I said that what we brought to the table was Miesian simplicity. Because of my.. you know, since I grew all of these people came out of Mies' office that was kind of like my point of view. And then James corrected me and said no, no, Quaker simplicity! [Christian group], because James was raised a Quaker. And so, that really, really, I don't know why, but the words no, quaker, simplicity, three words, really set me off. So I started going to Quaker services, to understand what it is that he meant by that. Because how could something this significant relate to that? And so, since I'm Calvinistic and not Quaker, I can make a gross simplification about religion. But if you were raised to believe in simplicity, these are the values of Quakerism I understand. Besides the non-violence stuff, which is pretty commendable. But if you were raised to value simplicity in speech, dress, food, and one of your main phrases in your religious group is "step into the light", and you're raised with those values and that phrase, and you became an artist. And you look at the work of James Turrell, it's all about simplicity and light. And a lot of his constructions are not even physical. You eye correctly constructs them from the light. So then I started thinking about what is it that I value? What is my ethical position. So what his my ethical position that affects my aesthetic position. Because clearly for him it was an ethical position that affected his aesthetic position. So, then I went through, and made a list of thing that I value. And a lot of it was related to the way I was raised, you know. Like I value simplicity. That's not better than complexity. There are some things which I think do have a moral tone to it, like wastefulness, or efficiency for me has.. you don't have to be the lowest, but you shouldn't be overly wasteful. For me that has a moral overtone. But, you know simplicity or complexity. I like simplicity. And you know, I like, I value hierarchy, I value harmony, I value elegance. The appropriateness. You know, one of the thing I truly hate is applied structures. Where structure uses decoration where it's the wrong solution. It drives me nuts. So I made a list, I don't have the.. I'm sure I missed a bunch of those. I believe in clarity, proportion. You know these are things that are of value to me. And down there, is minimalism, it's part of it. Does that relate to my Calvinistic, you know, going to the way I was raised or not? I don't know. But certainly, I have a certain set of values. Maybe it's because I'm Scottish and I hate to spend money [Laughs]. My ancestor's are Scottish. They gave me that. But I found it very very useful for me, to go through and list what I value in an ethical position and then see how that relates to my aesthetic values.


Wiel Arets You say, when you see what for example.. the zeppelin is dealing with. And you see what the new technology in the airplane industry, the new technology in the car industry or the new technology when we go to the moon. We have suddenly a different criteria than we as architects or engineers. We're aiming for but I think it's, since many years, is this, the idea is there is something that is moving, and we make the building that is not moving. It's different. As you said, stiffness, and on the other hand... Could you say something about that?

Bill Baker You know, things are changing and we're going to be.. Complexity is going to be much more accessible than it was. I mean, one of the reason things were simple is because it was cheaper. But we're able to have one-off, much more custom design that's interesting. And you mentioned the zeppelin. I have this book, it's called "Housing the Airship", that came out of the AA years ago. And has these photographs, the inside of a zeppelin, when it's under construction. Unbelievably beautiful. God, it's beautiful. Just a series of bicycle wheels coming into you know... So you have this outside hoop coming with these cables coming into this tension ring in the center. And they all line up, so you have this vanishing point of circles. That was very technical. They weighed everything. Every piece, they weighed, before they put it in there. Because they calculated how much it weighed, but how much does it really weigh? Because if they're off, it's not taking up, right? So they had to know what it really weighed, so they weighed it piece by piece as they assembled it. And, we are, with the new technology and the calculations and the buildings to get into the aircraft wing and stuff like that. You guys may be working with them now, also, I'm not sure. There's a group called AltAir. And we were trying to do some form finding, some studies on how to come up with new geometries. And I was aware of some research that had been done by a guy in Stuttgart named Erhard Rahm, and so he inspired me to look into this. And so we're trying to do our own, we call it like.. it's like, we like to call it playing without adult supervision. What we like to do is trying something out without knowing what we're doing, so that when finally can't get it, we've run into so many walls we've got to stop, we then go ask questions, and then we ask much more meaningful questions, than if someone just showed us how to do it. So we ran into the wall, and so we called up the professor and asked if we could use his software. He said, "mmh no" [laughs], but we sold a version to these guys in Michigan, called AltAir. So we called them up, these guys do, they work on the.. their software is used on the Airbus window, or wing and stuff like that. Automotive industry all the time. So we called them up, got them to come down here to see us. And they come here like.. they come in and say "why I am here? Why are we here?" [laughs] "why are you even talking to us?". So we tried to explain why we wanted to. And nowadays they have an architecture division. This is just maybe five years ago, or seven years ago that we did this. Maybe seven years ago. And then... But since then we've been getting a lot of other software that is.. that's actually even.. We are now collaborating with a lot of academics, now these are in the civil engineering department, these are pretty highly theoretical, guys in Illinois, some guys in Copenhagen who are doing some really fundamental.. these are as much mechanical engineers as they are structural engineers. Down to their bases. And so you're able to model these very sophisticated things, but they're doing the same thing we're doing, at least these guys in Copenhagen, they're doing this sophisticated model of the wing of an Airbus right now. So these super computers trying to figure out, you know, what does it want to be naturally? But what they do then, is interpret it. And so for me those exercises are not creation of designs, they're creation of knowledge. That then, the designers figure out how to apply, and you know, how to interpret it, and what part do you actually build. But these things you can do, inside, these computational tools which are, quite frankly I'm not even sure any of them will be more beautiful than the zeppelin. When you're done, because you know, because that was based on a pure idea.