Engineering Architecture: 20 Models Reveal How Skyscrapers Work

A new exhibition showcases the structural clarity, efficiency, and beauty of tall buildings.

A global skyline. Photo © SOM

On view at Architekturgalerie München through March 3rd, 2016, “The Engineering of Architecture” explores the research, design, and realization of cutting-edge structural engineering projects at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill sampled from the firm’s 80-year history. The exhibition invites visitors to explore SOM’s portfolio across a spectrum of building scales in locations around the world, from Seoul to Salt Lake City.

The show is anchored by 20 skyscrapers, each modeled at the same scale. Guided by SOM structural engineers and model makers, a team of students from the Illinois Institute of Technology assembled each model by hand in the firm’s Chicago offices using museum board, laser cutters, and glue. Models were created without facades in order to reveal the unique structural framework of each building.

“The Engineering of Architecture” showcases some of the firm’s most dynamic projects throughout its 80-year history. Photo © Saskia Wehler

One of the world’s foremost structural engineers, William F. Baker has helmed many of SOM’s most complex and innovative projects, including the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. “If architecture is the story of a time and place, structure is the language in which the story was written,” he stated at a recent lecture. An entire room of the exhibition is designed to replicate Baker’s sketch-covered studio, including a series of drawings depicting recent breakthroughs in structural engineering research at SOM. Another room contains drawings and renderings that shed light on the firm’s collaborative design process.

The main room of the exhibition, featuring 20 skyscrapers designed by SOM. Photos © Saskia Wehler

As visitors first enter the exhibition, they are enveloped in a rigorous grid that sets the stage for the 1:500 scale models. Placed on the floor, the models allow the viewer to stand as a giant among architecture and grasp some of the tallest and most structurally complex projects in the world. The 101-meter (331.4-foot) Inland Steel Building is just 0.2 meters (0.7 feet) tall, while at the opposite end of the room, the 1000-meter (3280.8-foot) Desert Crystal stands at 2 meters (6.6 feet) tall.

Placed in order of ascending height, the hierarchy of the models is emblematic of SOM’s pursuit of innovation and excellence in structural engineering. The exhibition incorporates a variety of SOM-developed structural approaches and schemes, from the archetypal work of the 1950s to pioneering endeavors currently underway. Together, the spectrum of work represents the culmination of a consistent global design methodology united by cohesive values.

Photo © Saskia Wehler

The exhibition team drew on talent from SOM offices worldwide, including (pictured from left to right) Mohamed Sheriff, Bernhard Rettig, Thomas Behr, Mark Sarkisian, Christian Hartz, Kent Jackson, and William F. Baker. Nicola Borgmann of Architekturgalerie München, pictured right, curated the show.

“The Engineering of Architecture” is open to the public in Munich from Monday to Saturday at Architekturgalerie München through March 3rd, 2016. Find out more.

Photo © Saskia Wehler

Exhibition models, pictured from left to right: 
Burj Khalifa, Dubai 
Burj 2020, Dubai
Liansheng Financial Tower, Taiyuan, China
7 South Dearborn, Chicago
Lotte Super Tower, Seoul
Nanning Wuxiang ASEAN Tower, Nanning, China
Willis Tower, Chicago
Guiyang World Trade Center, Guiyang, China
John Hancock Center, Chicago
CITIC Financial Centre, Shenzhen, China
Cayan Tower, Dubai
Tower Palace III, Seoul
Kingtown International Tower, Nanjing, China
Rural Commercial Bank Headquarters, Shenzhen, China
100 Mount Street, Sydney
DeWitt Chestnut Apartments, Chicago
111 Main Tower, Salt Lake City
Inland Steel Building, Chicago

Not pictured in photo above: 
Desert Crystal, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Aspire, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia