Rendering for transforming the Thompson Center into a public pool

Three Proposals for Chicago’s James R. Thompson Center Delight in Postmodern Possibility

Speculative designs from Eastman Lee Architects, Perkins & Will, and Solomon Cordwell Buenz won a competition to reimagine the Helmut Jahn-designed building, though its future is far from certain.

The prefix “re-” is perhaps the key to understand the design competition to dream up a new life for Chicago’s Helmut-Jahn-designed James R. Thompson Center. While -adaptive reuse was the open call’s principal stimulus, reviving a defunct postmodernist landmark was the sentiment for the co-organizers, Chicago Architectural Club and Chicago Architecture Center.

When the state of Illinois released a Request for Proposal for private acquisition the state-owned Thompson Center, a 1985 structure that once held government offices, many in the architecture and preservation communities feared that this key piece of Chicago’s postmodern legacy would be demolished and lost. In a bid to provide alternatives to simply tearing down the building the two organizations mounted a design competition inspired in part by past public use projects.

Chicago’s formal successful public use projects, such as the Millennium Park and the river front, inspired them “to restructure the Center in a new way that can both generate income and have public access,” says architect Elva Rubio, the co-president of the 103-year old Chicago Architectural Club. Jahn’s sudden death this past May at age 81 preceded the open call’s announcement in June. 

Interior rendering of Thompson Center
Eastman Lee Architects’ Offset: The Vertical Loop proposes transforming the building’s atrium into a public park and using each of the building’s 17 levels for different purposes. COURTESY EASTMAN LEE ARCHITECTS

“We aim to reintroduce a historically-significant building to the public and emphasis its second life through re-adaptive strategies,” adds Rubio. The idea-based call received 60 proposals from firms across five countries to transform the bulbous glass-and-steel building. A seven-member jury, which was comprised of world-renowned architects such as Thomas Heatherwick, Peter D. Cook, Mikyoung Kim, and Carol Ross Barney, anonymously evaluated seven finalists. Proposals from Chicago and Philadelphia-based Eastman Lee Architects, Perkins & Will’s Chicago office,  and the local outfit Solomon Cordwell Buenz were announced as three equal winners on September 13th.

Garden rendering
Solomon Cordwell Buenz’s proposal, One Chicago School features a public school with schoolyards making use of the building’s glass sheathing. COURTESY SOLOLOMON CORDWELL BUENZ

As a speculative project, the sky was the limit in rethinking this iconic, yet flawed architectural marvel. Committed to conceptual flair, Jahn was not necessarily preoccupied with energy consciousness and practicality (nine suicide cases have been recorded in the building’s sky-lit atrium). The curved single-paned glass panels fail in insulation, which results in high energy consumption and electricity bills as monumental as the building itself. “Maintaining this building is costly,” admits Rubio, and the winning entries honor Jahn’s vision with a utopian wit that delivers the necessary critique. 

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Eastman Lee Architects’ Offset: The Vertical Loop, for example, taps into the structure’s play with exteriority. The proposal transforms the marble-floored atrium into a public park by removing the non-insulated panels. Upwards, each zoned differently, the seventeen floors provide different functions, from private residencies to public farming.

“The rumor has it that the employees used to wear bathing suits and open parasols inside the offices during summer months,” explains Rubio about the structure’s unintentional greenhouse effect. Public Pool by Perkins & Will’s local branch builds its thesis on this unintentional function and suggests a waterpark where strategically designed colorful water slides swirl across the open interior form.

Elevation hand drawn
An elevation of Eastman Lee’s Offset shows intensive urban agriculture along multiple of the building’s levels. COURTESY EASTMAN LEE

“Whimsy is a tool that allows the audience to suspend disbelief temporarily and be enraptured by vibrant images that propose a near future,” says David Rader, an architect at Perkins & Will. “Architecture can be serious and fun—we used this opportunity to explore other types of public space that appeal to a wider demographic but have been less accepted by high design and architecture.” Eschewing the limitations of a development-based competition granted the team freedom to “deliver a design that is unhindered by real-world parameters that affect architectural design,” according to Rader. “The challenge is to strike a balance between conceptual purity and believability—you need both to resonate.” 

A building with a twenty-year deferred maintenance bill, the James R. Thompson Center is currently a ghostly structure with vacant units that once catered to governmental agencies, such as DMV. Solomon Cordwell Buenz’s proposal, One Chicago School, celebrates the building’s civic nature with a future-looking promise, a public school. The prototype suggests the use of the atrium as an extension of the outdoor urban plaza for open air playground and garden. This reimagining also eliminates the existing air conditioning infrastructure with natural ventilation and biophilic green space. Following the administrative offices on the second floor, the ensuing levels host students of different grades, starting with the youngest on the third floor. 

Public pool rendering
The Perkins & Will proposal, Public Pool, suggests an indoor waterpark based on the intense greenhouse effect felt in the building’s glazed atrium. COURTESY PERKINS & WILL

Jahn, who was a believer of the spectacle, had proposed a massive 110-story skyscraper to reform his design in 2015 upon developers’ initial interest in the building. His hyperbolic sketch now sits alongside the winning proposals in Chicago Architecture Center where the concurrent exhibition Helmut Jahn: Life + Architecture delves into the German-born Chicagoan’s legacy for the Windy City.

The next step for the organizers is to establish a think tank that they hope will influence the demolition planners to consider reuse. In addition to public programming with jury members and the winners, they hope to gather city officials and developers for a discussion in late October. The building’s fate, however, is still unclear.

After spearheading around 90 similar competitions at the Chicago Architectural Club, Rubio still believes in the impact of speculative design for change: “The goal is to understand why it has been built, what it has become, and why we should preserve it,” she says.

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