The Art Handler: SOM’s Roger Duffy, With the Help of His Artist Friends, Thinks Outside the Old Glass Box

An early conceptual design for the future Dia, joining two existing buildings with a new one in between. (Dia)

Growing up in Oakmont, Mr. Duffy said his was an intelligent home, if not an intellectual one—Time-Life territory. His father sold vinyl siding “in the coal towns of Western P.A.,” though he eventually became mayor and a state assemblyman. His mother was a court minute clerk at the county courthouse, “the person who swears you in before you testify.”

His first real brush with architecture came during his senior year in high school, when he would go to retrieve his sister each weekend from Carnegie Mellon University, where she was in her freshman year. Two women across the hall would let Mr. Duffy wait in their room from time to time. “They were both architecture students, and they were always sketching, which looked like fun, so I figured why not,” he said of his decision to study the subject when he started at CMU the following year.

When he graduated in 1979, the country was in recession, but Pittsburgh was especially bad off following the collapse of the steel industry. “There was absolutely no work, so I headed toward the nearest town, which was Washington,” Mr. Duffy said. He had read about SOM’s work and was impressed enough that it was the only place he applied. After a week of showing up at Mr. Childs’ door, Mr. Duffy’s eventual mentor relented and found him a job as a junior designer. He recalls being struck by Mr. Duffy’s desire to train first in the technical department.

When Mr. Childs moved to New York in 1985 to run the firm, he brought Mr. Duffy and a handful of other architects with him. It was there that Mr. Duffy had his artistic epiphany, on that date with his wife. Until then, he had not given art much thought, but he remembers being dumbstruck by
Ryman’s work, as well as the little things, like Dan Flavin’s transformation of the stairwell with a fluorescent light piece from 1966. “It was so special, and really made me realize the potential of space,” he said. “I wanted to do something like that with my work.”

It wasn’t until he was named a partner, in 1997, that he began to experiment with incorporating artists into his creative process. “I had a responsibility to do something special,” he said. “And why the hell not?”

The Art Handler: SOM’s Roger Duffy, With the Help of His Artist Friends, Thinks Outside the Old Glass Box