Interview With Gordon Gill: Searching for Better Answers

Gordon Gill is behind some of the world’s tallest buildings. But he doesn’t believe that higher is the only solution — in fact, there’s a lot about current design thinking that doesn’t convince him

July 2017

Words by Katie Puckett

Gordon Gill might be the classic Chicago architect. His forebears invented the concept of a city skyline, and then strove tirelessly to make their mark on it; today, Gill’s practice is responsible for a considerable number of the world’s tallest towers, with a string of constraint-defying, epoch-defining structures to its name — notably the 1km-plus Jeddah Tower taking shape in Saudi Arabia.

But far from exalting his clients to ever-greater heights and engineering feats, in conversation Gill is more likely to talk them into something that isn’t necessarily a building at all. He gives the impression of constantly searching for better answers, with an amused, quizzical air and a habit of responding to one question with another, or three more. And it seems that he inspires the same attitude in his clients, which is perhaps why he finds himself having “all sorts of peculiar conversations”.

“Someone hired me, and I said, ‘why do you want me to work on this job?’ And they said, ‘I want you to poke the gorilla’. I said, ‘I’m not sure what that means. Where’s the gorilla?’ The irony is that sometimes they’re the gorilla. So be careful who you ask.”

Height isn’t everything

Gill co-founded Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill in 2006, alongside Adrian Smith and Robert Forest. All three had senior roles at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the uber Chicago practice. The firm grew rapidly to 200 employees, but post-recession has settled at around 100. Today, it has about 50 buildings on site and Gill is about to head off for a whistle-stop tour of projects in Dubai, India and China. Many of these are tall buildings, for which the practice has a well-earned reputation — at SOM, Smith designed the Burj Khalifa — but Gill is at pains to point out that it has diversified, with several major masterplans that easily equal the scale of the Jeddah Tower. “I can’t really tell you that we have a ‘plan’, but whatever we do, we’re going to do our best to do it well. We will work on almost any scale project if it has a challenge and a quality to it. We’re looking for the intellectual challenge behind the design.”

“The question is going to be the psychology behind it: do you want to live on the 250th floor and spend three days up there without having to come down?”

Take Gill’s response to a perennial question in architecture: how high can we go? It’s one that he’s better positioned to answer than most, but he takes it in a different direction, puzzling over the implications of mega-tall structures for their inhabitants. “We’ve taken it to a mile, and we realise that the structural characteristics of the building have to change completely. The design module has to change completely. In 2008, when we were working in Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed asked us to do a 1km-tall building on the opposite side of Sheikh Zayed Road to counterpoint Burj Khalifa. It had a million square metres of programme. So we just broke it up.”

They designed three towers connected with three-storey triangular bridges, the tallest with a slenderness ratio of 1 in 28. This meant that they could draw in enough daylight for the homes and offices, but it also made this giant development more habitable, Gill explains. “From a humanistic standpoint, what we’re really doing is creating a complete neighbourhood, so you can now move horizontally as well as vertically. So I think you can occupy that type of scale.

The dark side of wellbeing

Gill is fascinated by the psychological aspects of comfort and performance, which leads him to take issue with another of the shibboleths of 21st-century architecture: wellbeing. “I hear, ‘Design it like this and you’ll have 10% more performance from your staff’. I was in a building the other day and they said to me, ‘Isn’t this a wonderful working environment’. It’s got the nice cushy sofas and the ping-pong tables, and every day someone comes around at 3pm and if you’re the highest performer that day, you get a massage. No kidding. You can have your dry cleaning delivered there, and food. They said we have an entire kitchen, and showers, and bikes. Holy crap, I said, you could just live here. And he looked at me and he goes, ‘exactly’. When he said that, it was like, ‘oh my God’.”

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Portrait of Gordon Gill in Chicago
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That’s when the scales fell from Gill’s eyes. “Is it right, is it good, to make environments so comfortable that you never want to leave? In my previous position, I would literally throw people out of the studio and I try to do the same thing in my office now. I’m not sure that it’s a good idea to give you all the comforts of home when you’re not home, unless I’m trying to hold you there; and if I’m trying to control you, then that’s a little twisted.”

The impact of densification

He is similarly perplexed by the electric car: “It bothers me, I can’t figure it out. How can you tell me that sprawl is related to the automobile, and that densification is good, and then give me an automobile I can just plug into my house like my vacuum cleaner, and drive around all day long? I don’t understand those two relationships.”

Density is something that Gill spends a lot of time thinking about. As his Chicago forebears invented the 20th-century city, he wants to reshape Gotham for the 21st-century in a greener, more holistic, human mould. His maxim is “form follows performance”, an update of Louis Sullivan’s modernist mantra “form follows function”. This turns buildings inside-out and the design process back-to-front, so that minimizing the resources a building will consume and maximizing the energy it could produce are the basis for its shape, rather than improvised solutions to a predetermined structure.

“I’m not sure it’s a good idea to give you all the comforts of home when you’re not home, unless I’m trying to hold you there. And that would be a little twisted”

The practice’s other buzzword is “context”. “We’re very interested in the impact a building has on its surroundings. From a carbon standpoint but also in a practical way. What are we doing to the guy next door? If there’s no guy next door, what’s he going to have to deal with when he shows up?”

So the concave surface of the Jeddah Tower becomes a giant solar concentrator, while the Federation of Korean Industries is rippled to angle its photovoltaic panels towards the sun. Sometimes the answer is not a building at all — with AS+GG’s competition entries for Chengdu Great City masterplan and Astana EXPO-2017, it was an economic model that clinched it for the practice.

Gill says that the firm has won bids simply by saying that a site should remain empty. “Clients have a preconception that if we touch something we’re going to put a building there. I think we approach problems a little differently. We’re problem-solvers who are architects, and so if the solution is physical, we express ourselves through architecture. Sometimes the solution is not physical, or if it is physical it’s not a building. It’s a park.”

Gill admits that the practice’s process of persuasion is “somewhat antithetical”. For him, a commission is an invitation to a dialogue, and just as the client has a brief, so does he, with a set of expectations for his own work. “We feel that our job is to take you to a place that you never expected you could go within the context of what you’re asking us to do. I tell people all the time, we’re not sales people. I’m not trying to sell you or convince you of something. What I’m going to do is present to you a set of rational analyses, that speak to problems or issues that you may have as it relates to your brief. Then I’m going to tell you how we think we could solve those within the context of your needs. Then I’m going to offer you something that is hopefully superior to what you expected from the brief. If you agree, we have a project.

“If you don’t agree, as we go through the analyses, then I can adjust the way that we’re thinking about your problem. But in the end, I think it’s a conversation about what your expectations are.”

A heavy responsibility

This also makes it hard to walk away. On occasion, the practice tries to have it written into the contract that it will be involved post-design stage to oversee quality during construction, and it will also monitor the building’s operations for as long as a client will allow. “We really want to understand how the building is performing after we’ve left and how the client is operating it. I think sometimes they’re suspicious, but we just want to understand if what we said was true.”

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His fastidiousness is also a natural function of Gill’s acute awareness of the impact of such large-scale developments, both on present-day cities and the long-distant future. To date, only five buildings over 150m have ever been intentionally demolished, and none over 200m. Which raises the likelihood that many of today’s supertall towers could be standing for hundreds of years to come.

“It is a tremendous responsibility when you think about the lifespan of a tall building. It is not a light load. So we tend to be very diligent and, frankly, firm with clients and with consultants on the quality of the systems that we employ. On the one hand, with cutting-edge systems, with things that are pushing the boundaries, that’s good. On the other hand, we’re not bleeding edge. We’re not going to experiment on a building that has life-safety issues associated with it. Or that could multiply its failure over its lifespan by 1,000 times because of one little detail that fails.”

So does he have any regrets? “I don’t think we’ve had any regrets of things we’ve designed so far. I have had regrets on projects where we haven’t been able to get the full scope, or we’ve just been asked to do one aspect of it, and you go back and there’s a disconnect. Or someone didn’t take the care to build it properly, which is very painful. There’s nothing worse than going and seeing a project that didn’t meet its potential. It’s like seeing a person when they’re a child and again 15 years later and nothing has happened. I only regret the things I can’t get to.”

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