The Importance of Scale: SOM’s exhibit at the Design Museum


If you happen to be strolling around West London, I recommend you visit Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s (SOM) exhibition titled, ‘Reflections: The Anatomy of Form’ at the Design Museum. It’s a fascinating insight into the practice’s ground-breaking work celebrating their advances in structural engineering as a truly multidisciplinary firm. 31 architectural models, created from cardboard, wood pieces and foam, are displayed side by side on a clean mirror surface mimicking the actual structures, several hundred times larger in scale.


The main takeaway behind the exhibition is that there is an inherent relationship between the structures we inhabit and the forces of nature that act upon it – the two are, therefore, inextricably linked. Unlike nature that evolves from a previous model or solution, SOM believes that building systems don’t have to adopt the same formula. Rather, newer solutions can be put forth effectively creating new ‘species’ of structures. With this concept in mind, each architectural model displayed in the exhibit pertains to a specific challenge faced during the planning process. Each model presented, therefore, has a distinct response to the forces of nature that impact it at a different scale. Here, I will briefly discuss 4 fascinating structures that respond to these very challenges.

1. Buttressed core: Burj Khalifa, Dubai, UAE

Burj Khalifa model at the SOM exhibition

Perhaps SOM’s most recognisable project to date, the firm pioneered the use of the buttressed core prevalent in the world’s current tallest building. A buttress, first of all, is a structure that supports a portion of a building, the sort you would expect to see in churches. In Burj Khalifa’s case, it consists of a hexagonal (six-sided) core supported by three wings that ‘buttress’ each other giving the structure its distinct tripod-like stance. This structural system is strong and allows buildings, like the Burj, to reach extreme heights.

2Bundled tube: Willis Tower, Chicago, USA

Willis Tower model at the SOM exhibition

A bundled tube structure is a common structural system found in many modern skyscrapers, of which the Willis Tower is the most well-known. Rather than a single tube, giving buildings a box-like appearance, it consists of multiple tubes ‘bundled’ together to form a multi-cell tube. Not only is this aesthetically pleasing, as can be seen from the tower’s exterior (above), it is also structurally efficient and designed to cope with strong winds at extreme heights. 

3Diagrid: 100 Leadenhall, London, UK

100 Leadenhall model at the SOM exhibition

I’ve realised that structures employing the diagrid system, like 100 Leadenhall, are usually characterised by complex shapes requiring a strong external, usually steel, bracing to reinforce its strength and stiffness. 100 Leadenhall, currently approved for construction, will possess a stainless-steel exoskeleton in a lattice-like system with trademark diamond motifs giving the entire structure a robust strength.

4Twisted frame tube: Cayan Tower, Dubai, UAE

Cayan Tower model at the SOM exhibition

Dubai’s Cayan Tower employs a twisted frame tube system where each floor of the 495-unit luxury residential building is identical but twists 1.2 degrees in relation to the floor below it, thereby producing a beautiful 90-degree twist.

The exhibition runs till Tuesday 1 October 6 pm so check it out before it ends.

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