24 feb 08 | The Chicago Tribune
Sweet new start for architect; Abu Dhabi green project highlights recent success
By Susan Diesenhouse
A few years ago Adrian Smith, who had been a partner and top rainmaker at architecture firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill LLP, felt he was being sidelined.
So Smith decided to start his own firm in late 2006. A year later, spotty revenues led him to personally pony up $250,000 to cover the payroll. But since December several new commissions have rolled in and the struggle seems worth it.
";I should have done it years ago," he said last week.
Smith, 63, and his new partners on Friday won a highly coveted commission to design a headquarters complex for a futuristic city being built in Abu Dhabi. Called Masdar City, the $22 billion car-free community will run on alternative energy.
The headquarters will be one of the largest structures in the world that aims to generate more energy than it consumes -- in this case by 3 percent.
Among other reasons cited for picking Smith's design was that it drew upon traditional Middle Eastern motifs. It was also beautifully refined, in contrast with many green buildings that are "ugly," the developer said.
Robert Ivy, editor of Architectural Record magazine, said he and other design experts are eager to see what the Smith team produces. "We must scrutinize results, not simply the plan," said Ivy, adding that "Adrian Smith is a world master of large scale buildings. I look forward to see how he further elaborates his own work."
If anything, Smith says he is growing as a designer and entrepreneur, and that his firm, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture LLP, is just warming up. He plans to log 150,000 air miles a year for the foreseeable future as he hustles for more projects in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
";Architecture is an old person's profession," said a soft-spoken Smith, clad in architects' favored all-black attire topped by his ample shock of snow white hair. "Especially with the large-scale projects I do, it takes so long to see and learn from the fruits of one's labor; you get better as you get older."
Smith should know. The renowned designer is known for his work at Millennium Park, Trump Tower and Burj Dubai, a skyscraper that is set to become the world's tallest. Smith's career spans nearly 42 years.
He and his partners plan to push so-called sustainable architecture into a mainstream business and promote a new role for buildings. Through the interplay of design, technology and natural surroundings they are fashioning structures that only minimally pollute or consume energy. Rather, they use building elements such as photovoltaic roofs and wind turbines to generate power in excess of the building's needs.
The function of real estate could evolve to the point where people will say, "We need more energy. Let's build a building," Smith said.
For Chicago, his home town, Smith and his partners are pitching City Hall on a two-mile crescent of parkland dotted with windmills on Lake Michigan. The reef, arching from Shedd Aquarium to Monroe Harbor, would act as a refuge for picnickers, but also help restore endangered flora and fish. The price tag would surpass $500 million, Smith said.
Starting his own firm was daunting, he acknowledged. In November 2006 he moved into a small Loop office overlooking an alley with three colleagues and some used furniture. With its focus on sustainability, Smith's firm is designing a theater in Cairo, a restaurant in Dubai and office and condominium towers that they can't yet talk about.
He is also discussing a couple of possible Chicago projects with developers.
The firm plans to triple the 50-person staff to nearly 150 by year-end and ultimately perhaps 200 to aim for $40 million to $60 million a year in commissions, Smith said.
At that point the firm would be big enough to compete for major assignments yet still nimble enough to outmaneuver larger competitors like his former firm, SOM, whose company policy forced him from the top management as he approached 60. How sweet was that?
Smith smiled but declined to comment. SOM didn't return calls.