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

When he was 11, Roger Duffy had his first encounter with art. It was 1966 and he was thumbing through

Mr. Duffy outside the future home of a Dia art center on West 22nd Street. (Matt Chaban)

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.

Were it not for Mr. Duffy, there is almost no chance Skidmore, Owings & Merrill would find itself in Chelsea, stitching together a row of old industrial buildings on West 22nd Street into the new Manhattan outpost of the Dia Art Foundation. Easily the most famous skyscraper architects in the world (Lever House, Sears Tower, Burj Khalifa), SOM is not exactly known for its quixotic art projects. But with Mr. Duffy, who has spent the past three decades befriending and subsequently employing nearly every artist to have ever shown at Dia, it is impossible to imagine anyone else undertaking this project.

Slideshow: A Dozen Duffy Designs >>

Mr. Duffy stands out in a firm of more than 1,000 architects, despite his quiet demeanor and monkish aspect. He is just as comfortable talking about phenomenology as he is zoning envelopes and interior finishes, and it is an experiential bent that he labors to incorporate into his work. “He is incredibly zen,” said Dia director Phillipe Vergne. He has an impressive recall of the art shows he has seen, particularly those at Dia, every single one of which he seems to remember.

The first date he and his wife of 23 years ever went on was the 1989 Robert Ryman show at the foundation’s old space at 548 West 22nd Street, which was sold off last decade amid Dia’s money troubles. It is a building Mr. Duffy speaks about with the same reverence most architects save for LeCorbusier’s Ronchamp or Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building.

Akin to the artists he admires, Mr. Duffy has rejected the formalism of his peers and forebearers, an unusual move for someone who works at a firm where the vernacular, varied and considerable as it may be, is still clean glass boxes.

Instead, he invests himself in the mission of his clients, the sites they have selected and, as he puts it, “their aspirations.” He has also developed an unusual way of looking at his projects, in part by using others to help him look at them. “I think these artists in particular spend a lot of time thinking about perception, be it visual perception or aural perception or other things, and they were delving into the fact that most of our thinking is done by the unconscious side of our brains,” he said. “They can bring something to the work that no one else can.”

David Childs, SOM’s long-time director, said he has rarely seen such a commitment to collaboration.

“A lot of architects draw a line around what they do, and maybe everyone else can hang some art on the wall, or a light fixture,” Mr. Childs said. “Roger has always been interested in bringing in groups of people with different perspectives than he has, different ways of thinking, and really letting them help drive the design process.”

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