Out of Office: Gary Haney

A skyscraper designer’s high-altitude dreams

Photo © Elizabeth Murrell

Gary Haney has provided the vision for some of the most notable skyscrapers around the world. His designs include Al Hamra Tower, which, when completed, Time magazine named as one of the year’s best inventions. For all of his high-rise ambitions, Haney remains grounded, especially in his commitment to educating the next generation of architects. While working as a design partner at SOM, he has taught students at Pratt Institute and at Northeastern University, and as the board chair of the National Building Museum, he serves the institution’s mission to explore the impact of design on people’s lives.

For Out of Office, our series on the people behind SOM’s global practice, ​we asked Gary about what inspires him, within and outside of the workplace.

What made you want to become an architect?
I always wanted to be an architect and I’m not sure why. My father was a building inspector and he used to take me to job sites after school. There were only two people that didn’t have mud all over them, and that was my dad and the architect.

If you hadn’t become an architect, what would you be doing?
I’d probably be working in a factory somewhere. I came from Middletown, Ohio, a factory town, which is now famous because it’s the subject of Hillbilly Elegy, a book that’s on the bestseller list right now. ​I’ve always wanted to be an architect, so I’d have no idea what I’d do.

What do you enjoy the most about your job?
The initial conceptualization of things — that’s exciting and the most fun.

Do you have any advice for students?
I think the best advice is to stop thinking individually and to think like a team. Schools teach students to all be Frank Lloyd Wright, and things don’t work that way now. Even the famous architects are not doing all the work themselves.

What is the most important quality for an architect to have?

Schools teach students to all be Frank Lloyd Wright, and things don’t work that way now. Even the famous architects are not doing all the work themselves.

What are three books you think anyone should read in their lifetime?
For architecture books, it would be Vitruvius’ The Ten Books on Architecture, John Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture, and Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. Especially if you’re a New Yorker, you must read The Power Broker to understand how the city became what it is today.

For fiction, it’s Moby Dick — really, all of Melville’s books. Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas is a fabulous book, and it sounds unbelievably modern considering when it was written. My favorite current author is Cormac McCarthy. Blood Meridian is the best book I’ve ever read. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, because it’s so violent, but it’s an unbelievable book. I also like Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen. It’s a “frontier epic” based loosely on a true story that is entirely reliant on its interaction with the landscape, almost as if the landscape is a character in the action.

What’s your favorite app?
Chess With Friends — ​I play it with my kids. I’m lucky to get a draw.

You’re showing a visitor your city. Where’s the first place you take them?
This is easy: I’d take them to my terrace that overlooks Central Park. I think Central Park is the greatest design and engineering feat in the whole city, and you can see the whole thing from my terrace. It’s hard to pick a building that comes even close as a design statement.

What keeps you up at night?
My kids. They’re 31 and 29. Isn’t it funny? I’m a classic helicopter parent and I can’t stop worrying about them. You’d think once they reach that age, it’d be easier, but it isn’t.

When you think about the future, what excites you?
We’re on the cusp of new developments in technology and in life. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I think that somehow having your refrigerator operated by computer is a good thing, and that there’ll be a kind of scaling of technology that will make everything work better. I don’t know how yet, but it’ll probably apply to architecture, too.

What is most important in design right now?
Responsibility. From students who come here to clients, they’re all asking for a different level of responsibility than even in the recent past. That goes for everything — from the performance of the building and energy use, to embedded carbon, to post-occupancy, to quality of life — and all of the old assumptions are not there anymore. There’s a movement away from willfulness that I think is actually good. It’s certainly something that we can take advantage of — that kind of responsible architecture — because that’s how our firm got started.​

Gary took this car for a spin in the snow at the Porsche Driving Experience track in Mecaglisse, Québec.

Who is someone you admire?
Felix Baumgartner — the guy who jumped out of the balloon at 25 miles above the earth and became the fastest human ever, jumping from the highest point. I start my lectures on supertall buildings with a picture of him jumping, and you can see the earth below. To me that extreme action somehow is the jumping-off point for doing supertall buildings. It puts the whole effort in perspective.

What experiences are on your bucket list?
I’d love to go on the Virgin Galactic space flight. The only difficulty is that I’m claustrophobic, so they’d have to make the windows bigger. If I have to get inside a constrained space, I can’t do it. If it looks more like 2001, I’d be happy to go. I think it would be fabulous.

What’s the most awe-inspiring space you’ve been in?
A tiny chapel in Rome called Sant’Ivo, by Borromini. It’s off a courtyard, very near Piazza Navona, and it’s just the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen. It’s pure white, Baroque, and so palpably about the space and not the surfaces. It’s almost like a Rachel Whiteread piece. The building is almost inside-out — that’s the feeling you get.

Define good leadership…
Getting the best people and helping them to fulfill their potential.

Define good design…
To find a good concept and let it evolve without preconceptions. All great buildings do that. When you look at them, you look at the smallest detail and the whole thing, and they’re all part of the same fabric. So, it’s kind of the same answer as good leadership: You have to start with the right idea and let it become what it wants to be.

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