Starship Chicago

Is Amazon going to sweep into Chicago and claim the James R. Thompson Center as its new headquarters?

Sure. Right after the spaceship disguised as an office building lifts off from its launch pad at Clark and Randolph for a return trip to Mars.

In a stroke of delusional fantasy, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Bruce Rauner made the Thompson Center the anchor of one of the ten locations Illinois proposed to the online retail giant (and one of 238 made to it nationally).

As soon as Amazon announces its choice, the fate of architect Helmut Jahn’s postmodern civic extravaganza, with its atrium echoing classical capitol domes, will be back in the hands of politicians who value the building less than the prime block of Loop real estate it occupies.

Completed in 1985, when it was known as the State of Illinois Center, the Thompson Center has reached a dangerous age: too young for city landmark status (which is restricted to buildings at least 50 years old) and, after years of deferred maintenance by the state, too decrepit for the likes of Rauner.

In October 2015, from a vantage point in the building’s jaw-dropping lobby, Rauner announced that the Thompson Center is good for nothing, and that he’s ready to sell it to developers for demolition.

Freelance journalist Nathan Eddy was at home in Berlin when news of Rauner’s announcement reached him.

Eddy, who grew up in Rhode Island, has been based in Berlin since 2008, mostly covering business and technology. But from 2002 to 2006 he was a Northwestern University undergrad, exploring Chicago’s streets with a camera and developing an appreciation for its architecture, including the Thompson building, which, on the phone from Europe last week, he called “a fun-house riot of architecture and democracy.”

In 2011, when he heard that another of his favorite buildings—Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital—was going to be demolished, Eddy says he “went into shock,” and “called a bunch of people in Chicago,” including Landmarks Illinois president Bonnie McDonald, whom he’d never met. He told McDonald, “this is an outrage,” and proposed chaining himself to the building. When she said that might not be the most productive response, “the next thing that jumped into my head was, ‘Let’s make a movie.’ ”

Eddy, a movie buff, had loaded up on film courses at NU but had no idea how to make one. He had college friends who did, however. He says that with the help of two former roommates, Oscar Boyson and Felipe Lima, he shot The Absent Column, a seven-minute documentary about Prentice, in five days. Another former roommate, Nate DeYoung, did the editing. The film was completed in 2012; it didn’t save Prentice, but it screened at architecture film festivals and gave Eddy a fast apprenticeship in the medium.

By February 2016 he was at work on a film about the Thompson Center, Starship Chicago. Brian Cagle handled the camera, and DeYoung again edited. Neither Rauner nor Emanuel would agree to appear on camera, but Eddy scored interviews with (among others) Jahn, former governor and building namesake James R. Thompson, and Stanley Tigerman, who opens the 16-minute film by opining that the building’s “a piece of shit.”

Starship Chicago will be screened at the Cultural Center this week as the introduction to a free public panel, Starship Chicago: Helmut Jahn’s Thompson Center at the Crossroads, sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Biennial and Landmarks Illinois. Eddy—who’s added preservation activist to his credentials, most recently launching a protest to alterations proposed for Philip Johnson’s 550 Madison Avenue tower in New York—will be here for the discussion, which will be moderated by DuSable Museum of African American History vice president Lee Bey and will also include CAB board chairman Jack Guthman.

Guthman, who says he’s a fan of Jahn’s work, doesn’t think the Thompson Center’s “uniqueness” qualifies it for landmark status. “It was never built to the quality Jahn intended,” he notes, and “it’s not a well-conceived building for a public body. There’s so much space that is not used. It’s inefficient and therefore inappropriate as a public building. To put millions of dollars [in repairs] into this building, which is perhaps more different than it is great, doesn’t make sense to me. If the question is ‘Should it be kept as is, as a landmark?’ my answer is, on balance, ‘No.’ ”  v