save the thompson center?

img_4747A brilliant weekend last week in the big city, highlighted in part by this view from the hotel of the possibly doomed State of Illinois Center, more recently the James R. Thompson Center, designed by Helmut Jahn and opened to wildly mixed reviews in 1985.  The state is in year two of a fiscal meltdown, and Illinois’ governor has proposed selling the nearly 1 million square foot structure, which raises the possibility that a developer might buy the complex for its land and raze the building.

Which raises all kinds of interesting questions.  1985 is only 32 years old–far short of the 50-year cutoff that raises instant questions of historic preservation.  And we’re still in the midst of battling the destruction of brutalist and late-modernist works from the 1960s and 1970s.  Are we ready to talk about preserving post-modernism?

This is a particularly complicated question, because the Thompson Center is a failing building on many levels.  Most notoriously, the structure is entirely single-glazed, which would have been a borderline choice in the early 1980s when energy was still relatively cheap, but today is absolutely insane, especially for a building with a 17-story, south-facing atrium.  And those colors, “more suited to Acapulco than the Loop,” wrote Paul Gapp in 1985–in the midst of an era when what Jahn called “a return to optimism in architecture” was all the rage.  Gapp went on to twist the knife:

It is above the level of the granite that the building falls apart esthetically. Jahn intended that the high-tech glass top convey a message of the less noble, more banal activities that are an inevitable part of everyday government activities. The bright blues, whites and silvers of the curtain wall were also to project the center’s symbolic optimism.

But it doesn’t work–not by half. To the building’s chunkiness is added the seeming quality of cheapness. Thirty feet above the ground on the LaSalle, Lake and Clark Street sides, the glass-walled center begins looking not simply out of context, but tawdry and vulgar. It is an embarrassment unredeemed by the greater integrity and glitter of the sloped setbacks facing the plaza. Much of Jahn’s highly abstract symbolism will go uncomprehended by anyone, including other architects.

Paul Gapp, “Helmut Jahn’s State of Illinois Center is: 1. Breathtaking? 2. Impudent? 3. Outrageous? 4. Idiosyncratic? 5. All The Above?”  Chicago Tribune, Feb.  17, 1985.  Arts, p. 16.

Gapp noted, though, that the “vulgar” exterior was nearly redeemed by the amazing 17-story atrium, complete with futuristic glass elevators and a floor pattern that recalled Michelangelo’s Campidoglio–a classic piece of postmodern appropriation.  Jahn’s inspiration, it was reported, was Henry Ives Cobb’s monumental, domed 1905 Post Office, which stood on the site of Mies’ current one-story structure.  Cobb’s building, unfortunately, matched grand civic dignity with a total lack of functionality, and its replacement was planned within weeks of its opening.

The Thompson Center’s obsolescence has come more slowly.  Initial reports found the interiors and furnishings cheap and flimsy.  Occupants reported that the elevators left many with vertigo.  By the building’s first summer it became apparent that the air conditioning system was no match for the 17-story greenhouse facing the morning sun, as well as the back end of the Daley Center.  Cost cutting had eliminated doors on most offices, and the atrium’s hard surfaces made acoustics throughout the structure difficult.  (Bonita Brodt, “Worker’s Eye View of the Building.”  Chicago Tribune, May 19, 1985.  1:1.).  The air conditioning system was replaced in 1987, but the simple physics of the atrium have always made it difficult and expensive to heat and cool.

Coupled with benign neglect over the budget-plagued last few years, the building hasn’t aged well.  The stone paneling at the base is chipped, colors have faded, and the retail and food court have gone steadily down market as other venues with better access to street traffic have taken higher-end merchants and restaurants away.  So, what to do when such a flawed structure is threatened with sale and demolition?

The usual adaptive reuse arguments are problematic here.  State of Illinois’ floor plates are gigantic–even with the atrium, there are spots on each floor that are more than 70 feet from windows or circulation.  And the shapes of the floors themselves may make any of the traditional conversions–condominiums or a hotel–virtually impossible.  So it’s hard to imagine anything other than offices moving in, meaning either a huge corporation that can best use acres of open floor space, or lots of renovation work to create lettable parcels inside and fix the acoustic problems that still persist.  Even if those issues get solved, there’s the single-glazed skin itself and the cost of heating and cooling the building.  Maybe the best hope for the building and for the city would be a complete re-skinning with materials that made sense with the city’s context (one tenet of post-modernism that Jahn seems to have missed entirely), and that worked with today’s energy concerns.  The sloped top of the atrium, for instance, would benefit from some active solar panels, except of course that they’d be in the Daley Center’s shadow much of the morning.

So, die-hard preservation fan that I am, this is a really tough one to get behind.  It’s easier to imagine buildings that extended the pedestrian scale of Lake Street, or the civic monumentality of the Daley Center, replacing Jahn’s infamous donut of a suburban Phoenix office park.  The Thompson Center was ill-conceived and dysfunctional when it opened, and like its inspiration, Cobb’s Post Office, its urbane intentions shouldn’t be enough to save it on their own.  Do the studies, figure out what might be able to re-inhabit the building’s 40,000 square foot floor plates, but given its youth and its remarkably early obsolescence, there may be other battles on which we should be focusing our preservation energies…

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