13 feb 18 | The Wall Street Journal

How the Designer of the World’s Tallest Tower Got His Career Off the Ground

By Marc Myers

Architect Adrian Smith, currently at work on Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Tower, got his start in the field through a chance conversation.

Adrian Smith, 73, is founder of Chicago’s Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture. The firm has designed the world’s tallest building in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and the world’s tallest residential building, New York’s Central Park Tower, due in 2020. He spoke with Marc Myers.

One of my first memories was getting lost. I was 4 or 5 and we lived in San Clemente, Calif. My parents dropped me off at a friend’s house, and when we were done playing, I marched out the door and started walking home. Fortunately, friends of my parents spotted me.

I remember being concerned about not knowing where I was, but I wasn’t scared. I viewed the experience more as an adventure, which is how I look at designing super-tall buildings today. It’s an adventure.

I was born in Chicago and we lived in nearby Evanston. My father, Alfred, was an executive at the Montgomery Ward department store. He was a manager in charge of finding new locations for the chain.

In his travels, he discovered a small coastal town called San Clemente that he thought would be a good location for us to live. So when I was 3½, we moved there. He opened his own store in town and called it Adrian’s, after me.

My mother, Hazel, worked there as a salesperson in the women’s department. As a teen, I swept floors, cleaned toilets and stocked shelves. During the holidays, I sold men’s clothes, and during school breaks, I’d go on buying trips with my parents.

We lived in a community of white-stucco houses with red-tile roofs. Ole Hanson, San Clemente’s founder, had planned the community in the 1920s. The homes were custom-built for their occupants.

Our third house in town was a beautiful Spanish Colonial Revival designed by Paul Revere Williams in 1928. The two-story, 4,800-square-foot house had five bedrooms and maid’s quarters. It sat at the highest point in San Clemente. Looking west, the land draped down several miles to the Pacific. The views were spectacular, like living in a high floor of a tall tower, but better because there were trees in the foreground. We had a big circular driveway and there was another drive running through a covered passage to the courtyard and garage in the back, where there were gardens, a chicken coop and beehives.

My two older brothers and I had our own rooms. My brother Bob was 16 years older than me. At the time, he was married and had a daughter five years younger than me. He had finished college and was a doctor interning at a hospital, so he lived with his family in our house.

My favorite sport was baseball. I was a pitcher and shortstop from age 8 through high school. My dad was the coach of my Little League and American Legion teams.

I first became interested in architecture during a mechanical-drawing class in high school. While learning perspective, I drew my first building: a 40-story high-rise tower. I also excelled in math.

At home, I liked going through magazines, tearing out and saving pictures of modern and neoclassical buildings. At some point, my mother suggested I should consider becoming an architect.

At the end of my freshman year at Texas A&M, my parents took me to Los Angeles on a buying trip. As they placed orders with the wholesaler, I struck up a conversation with Eric, the accountant. He turned out to be the father of Bruce Graham’s wife.

Graham was a famous architect at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and would later design some of Chicago’s tallest buildings, including the iconic Sears Tower. Eric gave me Graham’s number. After college, I applied for a job at SOM and was hired.

Today, my wife, Nancy, and I have two homes in Lake Forest, Ill. The one we spend most of our time in is a 100-year-old white Colonial built in 1912. It’s modeled after George Washington’s Mount Vernon and has a parklike setting on 6 acres. The other is an 85-year-old house designed by David Adler. This house is an important landmark in Lake Forest in need of repair and restoration. We purchased it seven months ago and are bringing it back to life.

We also have a house in Mundelein, Ill. It, too, was designed by Adler. It sits on one of the few hills in this area of Chicago, and we overlook almost 3,000 acres of preserved lands. We have 20 acres with a fishing pond, 20 beehives, an apple orchard and 12 acres of native prairie. This home is our retreat.

Not one of our homes is in a tall building. Nancy is from Iowa and prefers to live close to the ground. But my offices are in the penthouse of a Chicago tower, so I get my share of inspiring views.

Working with customers at my father’s store gave me a strong work ethic. I also learned a great deal about sales. Even architects of tall buildings have to sell their designs to clients.