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On His Own
Former SOM partner starts international city practice.
Peter Ellis
Courtesy Peter Ellis New Cities

With much of the world urbanizing at an unprecedented rate, Chicago architect Peter Ellis sensed an opportunity. “There is, I believe, a gaping need for a practice devoted to the planning and design of new cities,’’ Ellis said. A longtime veteran of SOM, Ellis recently left the firm where he was a consulting partner to found Peter Ellis New Cities, a 20-person architecture/planning/urban design practice with offices in New Delhi and Chicago.

While at SOM, Ellis planned Jaypee Sports City in India, and he is overseeing its construction in his new practice. “Not many people can say they planned and then built a city for a million people,” he said. Focusing on planning new cities and carrying those plans through to the design and construction of its architecture and infrastructure sets his practice apart. “An urban master plan begins to die the moment it hits the shelf,” he said. “There is the need for a few hundred new cities in the developing world.”

The plan for Jaypee Sports City in India, developed while Ellis was at SOM.

India has proven to be fertile ground for Ellis, both in terms of building out Jaypee Sports City, but also in attracting talent. “There are tremendous amounts of U.S. and European-trained Indian architects who are returning for new opportunities,” he said. Staff members rotate through both offices, so they stay connected both to the project on the ground as well as to U.S. design culture.

Ellis hopes to reshape existing cities in the U.S. as well. The firm is currently pursuing planning commissions in Los Angeles and Memphis, TN. In Los Angeles, the firm is submitting a proposal for a sustainability plan for Downtown, while in Memphis, Ellis and his team are responding to a call for a new airport city. “It’s really exciting to see cities across the country embracing smarter, more sustainable planning,” he said.

Ellis is at least the third senior SOM architect to leave and start a Chicago-based practice in recent years: Adrian Smith left in 2006; Thomas Kerwin in 2010. SOM has a mandatory retirement age of 60. “SOM is committed to advancing the firm generation to generation,” and that’s a laudable goal, he said, noting that many architects “don’t really become fluent as a designer until [their] fifties”. An early retirement age may have made sense for the previous generation, but less so now. Ellis is quick to express his admiraiton for SOM. “It’s such an amazing organization full of brilliant individuals.”

Ellis is focused on the environmental and demographic challenges we face in the present and near future. He believes purpose-built cities are key to sustainable growth. “We can build cities so they use 30 to 50 percent less energy and water than existing cities,” he said. “The technology is there. It’s about harnessing it and integrating into coherent systems.”

Alan G. Brake