Bruce Graham and I met in 1957 when I was first employed in the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. I had been hired as a junior designer on the Air Force Academy under the direction of the partner-in-charge of the project, Walter A. Netsch, Jr. When the firm consolidated in the Inland Steel Building in 1958 and Bruce was made partner- in-charge-of-design, he laid off the entire Air Force Academy design team. I was the sole exception, the runt of the litter, which in practical terms meant that my salary was less than others whose employment he had terminated.
Working under Bruce in SOM’s design room could have become my post-graduate experience, only I didn’t have any degree whatsoever in architecture at the time. But in any case, working for Bruce was an invaluable learning experience. His reputation as “a tough guy” was only partially true. If you had the courage of your convictions and the strength to back them up with cogent argumentation, Bruce would hear you out, and if he concurred with your assessment, you could hold the day. If not, you hunkered down and did as bidden.
I understood his approach to decision-making very clearly. We shared similar tours of duty in “Navy Air,” which meant that someone who outranked you told you what to do and someone you outranked did your bidding. Bruce was five years my senior, and that said it all. One didn’t work with Bruce. One worked for him. Nonetheless, as time went by and we parted ways, our relationship alternatively waxed hot and cold. I saw him for what he was—a force to be reckoned with.
With all due respect to SOM’s world-renowned structural engineer and my old friend Fazlur Rahman Khan, it was Bruce’s determinism that caused the Hancock and the Sears (now Willis) towers to transpire. Bruce’s will was not to be forsworn.
He was an extraordinarily gifted architect. His building for the First Wisconsin bank in Madison was superb. So too was his BMA office tower in Kansas City, and those three fabulously designed black towers on the West Bank of the South Branch of the Chicago River. When at one with his muse, he was nonpareil.
But I will always remember with great admiration and gratitude his astonishing ability to forgive bad debts and move on. Until Dr. Khan’s untimely death in 1982 at age 51, Bruce and I had what can be best described as a checkered relationship. But when faced with losing a mutual dear friend and a brilliant colleague, both Bruce and I gave up the ghost, so to speak, and from that point forward we joined hands as professional collaborators.
No one of his generation passed the baton to a following generation as generously as did Bruce. Our collaborative work on the Central Area Plan for Chicago’s Central Area Committee, our unrealized efforts on the Centennial of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, our joint efforts on London’s King’s Cross- St. Pancras Station mixed-use proposal are the tip of an iceberg.
Passing the baton is the better part of valor when contending with younger colleagues, and Bruce excelled at that. He was always open to ideas other than his own. I’m not saying that he always took kindly to criticism, but as he confessed to me while walking back to Inland Steel in 1958, “architecture is not for pussycats.” I took that to mean that one’s backbone would always be tested, since inertia often lies in wait to defer, delay, or defeat one’s mission.
His passing is a great loss for architecture generally and for Chicago specifically. He was a role model for those of us who could stand the heat when too close to him. An architect’s passing is measured by what he or she leaves behind, and they’re not always buildings that are there to inspire us, but behavior as well.
The last time I saw Bruce was when he returned to Chicago in the summer of 2007. His Alzheimer’s disease was quite advanced by that time, but when he saw me he broke down and cried, for he had forgotten how much he had hated me; he only remembered how much he cared about me, and so we both shed a few tears.