dec 08 | Architect

The comeback kid

by Vernon Mays

Adrian Smith didn't want to retire. Turns out his clients didn't want him to, either.

In early January, Adrian Smith was holding out hope that his newly founded firm, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture (AS+GG), was on the verge of getting its first big break. By month's end, jaws had dropped at the startling announcement that AS+GG had won the international competition (against finalists Foster + Partners, Atkins, Murphy/Jahn, and the New York office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill [SOM]) for the Masdar Headquarters, a 1.5-million-square-foot complex in Abu Dhabi. (See "Positive Energy," June 2008.) It was the first in a series of developments that made 2008 a banner year for the firm--and made Smith the year's comeback kid.

Not that Smith is by any means a young buck. In fact, it was his age--just a few years shy of mandatory retirement at 65--that prompted him to jump ship from SOM in late 2006 and launch Chicago-based AS+GG with partners Gordon Gill and Robert Forest, also SOM alums. Smith says a forced transition to consulting design partner at SOM gave him the sense he was being marginalized -- "and I didn't like that feeling." So, at a point in life when many might have just accepted the inevitable, he started a new firm.

When the Masdar selection was made, AS+GG had 37 employees. Now the staff totals 185. Asked about other metrics to measure the firm's success, Smith simply offers: "Financially, we are very secure."

That's because the work keeps coming. On the heels of the Masdar victory, AS+GG won another competition held by Meraas Development to design a three-tower complex in Dubai known as 1 Dubai. In proposing a massive sculptural composition with soaring clusters of cables and sky bridges, the firm beat out SOM New York, Pelli Clarke Pelli, Kohn Pedersen Fox, and Atkins. Each of the towers will be at least 2,000 feet tall; together they will enclose 13 million square feet of space. "This is the largest project ever built in the world," says Smith.

Recently, AS+GG was selected to oversee the greening of the Sears Tower, a commission that could easily have gone to the building's original architects, SOM Chicago. "They were interviewed," Smith says with a discernible grin. The ongoing renovation will involve reglazing of the building, updated lighting, and an overhauled mechanical plant. New green roofs will be installed--the first test section is already in place--along with a rooftop photovoltaic array. In addition, the firm will explore the use of wind turbines as a viable energy source.

Given his experience with large-scale, mixed-use projects, Smith says he knew the firm would have to be fairly sizable in order to do the work he wants. But the rapid rise of AS+GG--with 27 projects now in the works, in Chicago, Philadelphia, Vancouver, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Dubai, London, Belgrade, and Mumbai--has surpassed his wildest expectations. The firm's first two wins got a lot of attention, but as Gordon Gill notes, "The third and fourth time you do it, you're in the game. It's not a fluke."