SOM’s Exchange House Wins Big

Year after year in the early 1990s, SOM’s Exchange House in London won award after award for its design and engineering.

Now it’s topped them all – with the prestigious AIA National 25 Year Award.

For good reason. It’s something of an engineering marvel – a ten-story building with arches seven stories tall. Four of its structural arches are outside and two inside, each with the identical trajectory.

“We were trying to do something not philosophically unlike the 19th-century train shed next to it – a pure structural solution with exposed steelwork,” says Bill Baker, structural engineering partner at SOM.

At the time it was designed, Baker was working with students at IIT in Chicago, delving into the structural secrets of the John Hancock Building downtown. ” Believe it or not, it’s a tight arch, even if it doesn’t look like it,” he says. “It behaves like an arch – its load can span from side to side.”

He put that knowledge to work on his project in London, using its shape to set it up. “The Exchange House is a parabola of its load path,” he says.

Like Saarinen’s St. Louis Arch, the structure of the Exchange House was built in a series of segments. Loads were kept to a minimum until the arch was closed and the key piece placed atop. Then the load was transferred to the arch.

“We jacked the building up two inches, lifted the building up, unloaded the shores and then put building back down,” he says.

It’s design was driven by the site’s railroad tracks below – so that the solution became a bridge that was a building that clears the entire site.

“It’s the kind of architecture we strive to achieve.,” he says. “A building can’t describe a building without describing its architecture, and architecture can’t describe its architecture without describing the building – they’re one and the same.”

And if they’re integrated well, they win time-honored awards.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications. He’s also the author of “Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand, due out from Routledge Press this spring. To pre-order, go here.

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