Page C2.2 . 03 September 2003                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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150 Years of SmithGroup


In the 1920s, Detroit's skyline was defined by Smith, Hinchman & Grylls skyscrapers, including the Union Trust Building (1929) now known as the Guardian Building, which is the headquarters for SmithGroup today.

But by 1932, the firm was reduced to four officers and two assistants. They survived the Great Depression with small jobs from existing clients, a major commission in 1935 from the University of Michigan, and, in the late 1930s, new corporate plants and municipal facilities. During World War II they built ammunition plants.

At the end of the war, to bolster its architectural design reputation, the firm hired as its head designer Minoru Yamasaki, who later became better known as architect of New York's World Trade Center. In 1948 General Motors retained Eero Saarinen as architect and Smith, Hinchman & Grylls as coarchitects and engineers.

Yamasaki left the firm to establish his own office before completion of the General Motors Technical Center, an icon of modernism. But even without a high-profile lead designer, the firm continued to prosper as a corporate architecture/ engineering firm, executing buildings in the style of these and other late 20th-century masters.

Corporate Expansion

In the second half of the 20th century, Smith, Hinchman & Grylls aggressively expanded the range of services offered. Starting in the 1970s, they engaged in construction management and environmental research, and they acquired other firms to obtain this expertise.

They also merged (their preferred term) with other architecture firms to develop design expertise and entré into new geographic markets. These firms included Keyes Condon Florance of Washington, DC, and Stone Marraccini & Patterson of California.

The practice of merging continued until 2000 when they changed their name to SmithGroup. That year, Tobey + Davis — experts in higher education, healthcare, and museums — became the most recent company to join.

The name change reflected more than the absorption of well regarded local firms. While increasing design strength and enhancing its expertise in specialized architecture and engineering areas, SmithGroup had also moved into related, but quite distinct fields such as real estate program management.

Honing the Mission

In the last few years, SmithGroup has shed its "expanded services companies" and reorganized, with David King, FAIA as chairman and Carl Roehling, FAIA as president and CEO. The firm has been divided into five "solution groups" or major practice areas: health, learning, research, office/workplace, and cities and communities. In addition, the SmithGroup has created 40 studios — most consisting of 30 to 40 people — with design, marketing, and management expertise in each studio.

According to King, this organizational structure reflects the desire of clients for a "dedicated, skilled design team, focused on their job." So the firm moved away from hard-to-manage, broad-scope complexity and back to a core business of architecture, engineering, and planning. King, as the firm's principal designer, spends much of his time on the road, participating in charrettes with the studios throughout the firm's eight offices.

When asked if he imposes a design style by working so closely with each studio, King replies that the firm is not defined by a "signature style." He explains: "If we first establish a story or framework for meaning and interpretation, a building can speak to the public, its setting and time, in its own unique way."

As one example still in the design phase, Visteon Village, outside Detroit, is the corporate headquarters of an automotive supplier. The project was literally conceived as a village, broken up into a series of low-scale buildings respectful of the setting and of the needs of the people who will be working in the one million-square-foot (93,000-square-meter) project.

Recent Successes

In a quite different style are two other David King designs: Discovery Communications in Silver Spring, Maryland, and the National Academies Building, in Washington, D.C. While these two buildings share the use of boat-hull roof details, each responds directly to the challenges of very different urban settings.   >>>

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The Detroit Opera House (1868) by Sheldon Smith, founder of SmithGroup.
Photo: Courtesy SmithGroup

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Henry Ford's Piquette Avenue Plant (1904) designed by Smith, Hinchman & Grylls.
Photo: Courtesy SmithGroup

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The Buhl Building (1925) was Detroit's first skyscraper.
Photo: Courtesy SmithGroup

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Meadowbrook Hall, one of several private residences designed by Smith, Hinchman & Grylls for auto industry magnates.
Photo: Courtesy SmithGroup

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A rare commission during the Great Depression was for the Rackham School of Graduate Studies (1938) at the University of Michigan.
Photo: Courtesy SmithGroup

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Detoit Public Library (1932).
Photo: Courtesy SmithGroup

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General Motors Technical Center designed by Minoru Yamasaki and Eero Saarinen.
Photo: Courtesy SmithGroup

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Discovery Communications in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Photo: William Lebovich


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