“Not to be critical of others, but a focus on art and a way to display art are hard things to find in the world,” Roger Duffy said during a recent tour of the Dia Foundation’s three buildings on West 22nd Street. “When I meet many artists, I ask them what their favorite museums are, and there aren’t many. There’s a lot of investment going on, but not much else.”
The international architecture firm SOM is best known for its stolid glass towers, but partner Roger Duffy has shown that is not the only way. One of his favorite modes is collaborating with the Minimalist artists he admires to create experiential (and experimental) spaces, buildings not unlike the installations of these artists—James Turrell, Lawrence Weiner, Rita McBride. But that is not the only work this daring designer has created. Here are a dozen of his projects from the past decade, ranging from schools to luxury condo towers and international airports.
When he was 11, Roger Duffy had his first encounter with art. It was 1966 and he was thumbing through one of those big Time-Life picture books about America at his home in Oakmont, a town on the outskirts of Pittsburgh famous for its golf course of the same name. He came across a picture of a drawing by Diego Rivera hanging in the guest room at Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s wooded retreat 60 miles away. Mr. Duffy asked his father what it was, and Duffy père responded laconically, “It’s art.”
Even today, as one of the most canny combiners of art and architecture, Mr. Duffy, in his reserved way, said he saw no great significance in this awakening. He had come to realize the power of a piece of art, as well as that of its surroundings, even though he did not know it at the time. “I thought of art as magic, and I still do,” he said. “But the two of them together, in that moment, I never really thought of that, now that you mention it. I was just focused on the picture in the picture.”
It would take a few decades for his appreciation of art to develop, and years more for him to incorporate it into his work as a partner at Skidmore Owings & Merrill, but his focus never really wavered. “He may not have known it, but I think this sensitive genius was always there inside him, just waiting to come out,” said Robert Whitman, the renowned multimedia artist and friend and collaborator of Mr. Duffy.