google to SOIC–this is…good?

The saga of Helmut Jahn’s State of Illinois Center/Thompson Center seems to be coming to a happy end for preservationists and Loop advocates with the news that Google will buy, renovate, and occupy the building (headline writers can’t resist adding “after long search…”)

Google’s move reverses a worrying trend of disinvestment as commercial tenants have been leaving the Loop in droves as remote work has encouraged alternative locations and office arrangements. Anchoring the center of the city with a few thousand employees is a good thing for transit, for retail and dining establishments, and for the city in general.

From a preservation point of view, it remains to be seen whether Google lives up to the not-totally-fulfilled promises of the 1986 building. Always a public favorite, access to its glass atrium and rotunda (stunning but environmentally dubious) is in question, as are its iconic Miami-Beach-on-Clark-Street curtain walls and postmodern? deconstructivist? follies that worked better as axonometric drawings than public sculpture. Jahn’s original curtain wall design was supposed to combine structural glazing with insulated glass, but this proved beyond the capabilities of manufacturers and installers in the 1980s. With Google’s deep pockets maybe this gets revived, though the basic physics of its southwest southeast-facing, 14-story glass atrium can’t help but present environmental challenges. (Thanks for the correction, Kevin G.–your proofreading merit badge is on its way…)

Less heralded but equally good news, IMHO, is the announcement that the State will decamp from the Thompson Center to the “old” Harris Bank/BMO tower a few blocks south. Designed by SOM and built in the early 1970s, it’s a vastly underappreciated example of the firm’s most rigorous work, with a finely tailored stainless steel curtain wall and central core elevators that are effectively suspended above the ground floor lobby and accessed by escalator, leaving the space wide open. It’s a subtle building, and hemmed in enough by its neighbors on La Salle Street that it’s hard to notice, but worth a look–especially as it presents a neat contrast with the first Harris tower, also by SOM, on the eastern end of the block. That was designed by Walter Netsch, a rare skyscraper by him, and the contrast between the gothic-like tracery of Netsch’s tower and the robust, if latent, classicism of the later one, by Bruce Graham, is pretty clear.

State of Illinois had a complex history. It emerged as the last, long-delayed element of Mayor Daley’s plan to keep Federal, City, and State offices downtown and as the sole piece of the ill-fated North Loop revitalization plan championed by Arthur Rubloff. If that had gone through, much of the area east and north of SOIC (including, unbelievably, Rapp & Rapp’s iconic Chicago Theater) would have been razed, replaced with megablocks and skywalks that, in hindsight, would have been disastrous. Jahn and then-governor James Thompson both saw the utility in producing a striking, press-release-worthy building, but making the complex geometry and giant atrium work proved difficult. The project suffered cost overruns, declining support in the local press, and serious thermal and water infiltration problems. Budget cuts eliminated new furniture and even doors on private offices–one wag at the Tribune noted that, finally, the State was living up to its promise of “open government.” But the atrium and basement food court (a new innovation in 1986) were immediately popular with workers and the public–the building regularly was cited as both the “most hated” and “most loved” building in the city.

If Google keeps some public access, if it leverages its ownership into much-needed improvements to the CTA station attached to the Center, and if it invests in restoring or replacing the building’s cladding, this will prove to be a good thing. I’ve written critically about the efforts to landmark and salvage the Thompson Center before–I think the costs and consumption needed to keep energy-hogging buildings alive and running has to be taken into account when we have these conversations–but if Google is picking up the bill and if it’s willing to keep the best aspects of the building while fixing the most difficult this could be a win…

st. john’s

It’s been a great irony that, with all the traveling to see Nervi buildings I had not–yet–been to the one closest to my home base. St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN hired Marcel Breuer to masterplan their campus in 1953 and the central church, with its iconic bell tower, was the centerpiece of Breuer’s extensive work on the campus. Its design and construction paralleled that of the UNESCO conference hall, which Breuer designed with Nervi and Bernard Zehrfuss from 1955-58. (The best design history of the structure is Victoria Young’s Saint John’s Abbey Church: Marcel Breuer and the Creation of a Modern Sacred Space (U of Minnesota Press, 2014).

The two projects have immediate similarities–but also key differences that are interesting as insights into two very distinct but related careers. UNESCO has always seemed important to me as a moment where two really thoughtful approaches–Breuer the International Style modernist and Nervi the process- and pattern-oriented structural engineer–merged for a very brief moment and profoundly influenced one another. Breuer emerged from the projects as a confirmed brutalist, interested in the expressive power of exposed concrete and robustly displayed structure, while Nervi’s work expanded into more sculptural (if far more restrained) territory.

UNESCO on the left, St. John’s on the right. Both house a large assembly space under a folded concrete plate roof–the corrugations give thin concrete planes the depth necessary to act as beams, and you can see that both structures rely on deep, stiff connections between vertical and horizontal members to become portal frames. Breuer clearly appreciated the architectural impact of the folded plates–their deep recesses create a strong pattern of light and dark that gives both spaces rhythm and scale. Crucially, though, the folds run the long direction of the UNESCO space while they run the short direction of St. John’s–perpendicular to the liturgical axis:

The effect is recognizably gothic–the structure emphasizes the march down the aisle to the altar, which is notably open and pushed forward into the congregation as an early experiment in what would become standard design in post-Vatican II churches. So far, so good. Nervi thought that gothic churches represented a high point in structural and architectural integration, and would have been entirely on board with Breuer’s sensibilities here.

How those corrugations landed, though, was a matter of contention. Breuer wanted the heavy roof to sit above strips of windows that would illuminate the sanctuary from ground level–making the concrete appear to float. Again, not unlike gothic structure, but look at where the folded plate/portal frames land. Their loads are collected by a deep concrete girder that carries them over apertures to the bearing piers. That’s a bit of structural gymnastics of the sort that Nervi criticized heavily. A good gothic builder (or, for that matter, Roman or Greek) would have “put solid above solid,” both a recipe for structural efficiency and for visual satiety. Syncopating the structural rhythm of the plates and windows does make for a striking visual–but for Nervi this was a distraction from the otherwise holistic conception of the structure and space. While he wrote–extensively–about UNESCO, Nervi rarely mentioned St. John’s, and from correspondence it’s clear that he considered this a less successful manifestation of the folded plate idea than the conference center in Paris.

Nervi was farther from Collegeville than Paris, of course, and that shows (perhaps) in the quality of concrete. As a contractor, Nervi’s knowledge of formwork and mixes was extraordinary and the craft that went into the surfaces of his poured-in-place work is rarely given the credit it deserves. UNESCO’s concrete shows the level of fine detail that would have come from having that knowledge going into design, specs, and site supervision. St. John’s concrete is far rougher, and Breuer was happy to have the random color differences and rough surfaces that would come to typify brutalism on display. Both approaches work, and Breuer’s late career would take this acceptance of concrete ‘as-stripped’ much farther.

So, a far less “pure” Nervi work and one that relied more on his calculation than design instinct. That doesn’t take away from the sheer architectural power of the Abbey, though–Breuer on a good day could produce genuinely awe-inspiring spaces with the best of them, and you can see him starting to stretch his sculptural and spatial instincts as well, beyond the relatively straightforward efforts in his houses to that point. In particular, the balcony, set up on cantilevered piers and grazing but not touching the back wall of the sanctuary, is a tour de force, or, really, a tour de forces, that is almost Wrightian in the way it compresses and explodes as you move under it:

The bell tower–easily the best-known piece of the composition–contains something of a tribute to Breuer’s collaboration with Nervi. Its base is recognizably splayed, reflecting the shape of the Eiffel Tower, which sits at the opposite end of the Champ de Mars from the UNESCO building.

Collegeville is about a 70-minute drive northwest on I-94 from Minneapolis and well worth the trip, especially if your traveling companion knows to recommend the bear claws at Nelson Brothers Bakery in Clearwater. If you can throw in a Twins or St. Paul Saints game or two, so much the better.