The Thompson Center from Randolph Credit: Ken Lund

Hello, global visitors to the third Chicago Architecture Biennial. Welcome!

This year’s event is all about the way architecture shapes and is shaped by culture, history, and nature.

It offers a bunch of exhibits and programs on that theme, right there at its central location, the beautiful beaux arts Chicago Cultural Center–once considered a disposable white elephant of a building.

There are dozens more at official partner locations around the city. As the biennial’s title, ” . . . And Other Such Stories,” suggests, Chicago is full of opportunities to study the interplay of architecture with its urban and human environment, not all of them on the program.

One of the most disturbing is playing out in real time just three short blocks from the biennial’s main venue. To check it out, exit the Cultural Center on its north side and turn left, where a five-minute walk on Randolph Street will bring you face to face with what looks like an alien space transport vessel—a massive, squat, pink and bluish anomaly plopped down across from City Hall in the midst of Chicago’s towering skyscrapers.

This is the James R. Thompson Center, the 17-story, 1.2-million-square-foot Chicago headquarters for the state of Illinois. Designed by German-born Chicago starchitect Helmut Jahn, it opened 34 years ago as a pathbreaking, environmentally innovative, socially progressive mixed-use government center—and was recently named by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the 11 most endangered historic places in America.

It’s a head turner from the outside, but you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Cross the plaza at the corner of Randolph and Clark Streets, pass the lumpy Dubuffet sculpture Monument With Standing Beast standing guard there, enter through the revolving doors to the lobby, and look up.

In the city that gave birth to the skyscraper, this deceivingly truncated runt of a structure houses the most spectacular indoor space—a vast, dizzying latticework atrium that pulls in the towers around it and soars from a bull’s-eye blossom on its lower concourse straight up to the sky.
Jahn pulled off visual magic here, easily recognizable as the inspiration for his Sony Center in Berlin, an international tourist destination completed 15 years later on the site of the former Potsdamer Platz and the Berlin Wall.

The State of Illinois Center, as it was originally known (it was renamed in 1993 for the governor who commissioned it), was designed to honor the domes of historic public buildings, especially the rotunda of Henry Ives Cobb’s 1905 Chicago Federal Building (at Adams and Dearborn, demolished in 1965), which was bigger than that of the U.S. capitol.

But Jahn was also breaking with tradition. He made the first two floors of the Thompson Center a multiuse hub of public activity, including retail, restaurants, and one of the city’s busiest el stations. And he left every floor of the state offices that rose in concentric half circles above that commercial area open to it, as a symbol of and facilitator for a transparent, corruption-free Illinois state government.

Of course, it didn’t exactly work out that way. “Transparent” and “corruption free” are not the first words that come to mind in the state where, in recent history, four governors wound up in prison. The building didn’t turn out to be perfect either. Its leading-edge heating and cooling systems proved to be nearly as flawed as the state’s elected officials, and employees complained about food court odors and noise that wafts up over the open balconies to their offices. As the years went by and administrations changed, building maintenance that should have been routine was delayed and forgone.

It’s not unheard of for older, lower-density Chicago buildings in desirable locations to be allowed to fall into such disrepair that their owners can justify booting the occupants and demolishing them. But it’s jolting to learn that, just three and a half decades after the ribbon-cutting hoopla of its opening, this could be the fate of the Thompson Center.

In April, Governor J.B. Pritzker signed a law that authorizes sale of the building within two years—without any stipulation that forbids demolition. And in late August, he took the next step, issuing a request for proposals for a project manager to take charge of the sale and the relocation of about 2,000 state employees. Blaming “prolonged deferred maintenance,” he cited plans for using the proceeds of the sale to help stabilize the pension system. Proposals are due October 4.
Financials, including the cost of providing other office space for those 2,000 employees, are murky so far. Repair costs for the current building were estimated in 2016 at more than $300 million, which seems like a lot. Pritzker’s predecessor, Governor Bruce Rauner, who’d hoped to unload the building himself, had projected that it would sell for $300 million.

Whatever the case, the state’s unfunded pension liability is more than $130 billion. So here’s a question: How could the drop-in-a-bucket net gain from this sale be worth the loss of such a significant public space?

In 32 years of annual “most endangered” designations from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Thompson Center is the youngest building ever to make the list. It’s also a prominent presence on the endangered lists of local activist groups Preservation Chicago and Landmarks Illinois (which, looking at the environmental impact, estimates that demolishing the center would create 145 million pounds of waste).

They’re all pushing for the governor to favor reuse in any possible sale. And Jahn himself drafted an eye-popping reuse plan (shown above) that includes construction of an adjacent 109-floor office, hotel, and residential tower. But there’s no sign so far that Pritzker’s on board.

When asked about demolition, the governor’s office sent the following statement: “The Thompson Center is a valuable state asset, and this approach will make the sale in a responsible way for the state’s finances. In selling the facility, the governor’s goal is to balance all interests to maximize the benefit to Illinois taxpayers.”

So take that short walk to see what the National Trust for Historic Preservation calls “Chicago’s best example” of grand-scale postmodern architecture.

By the next biennial, in the city that’s all about architecture, it could be gone.  v