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Can a Skyscraper Save the Thompson Center?

The embattled postmodern landmark is one of the state’s most endangered buildings. Architect Helmut Jahn and Landmarks Illinois are teaming up on a plan to preserve and reimagine it.

A rendering shows the proposed tower for the Thompson Center.   Photo: Visualized Concepts Inc.

For a second year in a row, the preservation group Landmarks Illinois has named Chicago’s Thompson Center, a striking postmodern structure designed by noted Chicago-based architect Helmut Jahn for the State of Illinois, as one of the state’s most endangered historic places.

But this year, the group’s advocacy efforts are bolstered by the release of an ambitious plan and accompanying renderings depicting a Thompson Center overhaul and adaptive reuse.

Landmarks Illinois has teamed up Helmut Jahn’s firm to study the publicly-owned building and draft a redevelopment scenario which includes the addition of a new tower at the corner of Randolph and LaSalle—a proposal which Landmarks Illinois President & CEO Bonnie McDonald says would satisfy the needs for a future developer to maximize potential profit while also preserving the Thompson Center’s most prominent feature, a dramatic 16-story open atrium space.

“The Thompson Center is the best example of postmodernism in Chicago—architecture’s first city in the nation, if not the world. We have a responsibility to protect future landmarks and the building has already been determined to be historic,” McDonald says of the building, noting that a proposed tower addition would not only breathe new life into the complex, but it would add to the Thompson Center’s architectural prominence in downtown Chicago.

thompson center helmut jahn postmodernism
Photo: Visualized Concepts Inc.

Landmarks Illinois and JAHN imagine removing the main entrances to the atrium and transforming the core of the Thompson Center into an open air space which would be open to the public. Meanwhile, new barriers could be created to better isolate the offices located along the upper level walls of the main building. The proposed tower addition, which the draft concept depicts rising upwards of 1,300-feet-tall, would create new space for upscale residences, hotel rooms, and conference centers, McDonald suggests.

Renderings provided by Landmarks Illinois, which depict the tower from street-level, reveal a tower addition that features the blue glass motif of the Thompson Center. McDonald also adds that the group looked to JAHN’s design for the Sony Center in Berlin, a contemporary mixed-use structure which also features a prominent interior atrium, as an example of how this style of open-air complex could become a success in Chicago and better serve today’s needs.

Regarding the Thompson Center as it stands today, Jahn acknowledges that the complex has not been well managed over the years and says that he supports the state’s plan to sell the structure. However, Jahn believes that demolishing the building would not benefit the public.

thompson center helmut jahn
Photo: Visualized Concepts Inc.

“The idea of selling the Thompson Center is the right one, and hopefully someone buys the building and repurposes it,” Jahn says. “The last thing that will help the building is to tear it down. There’s an incredible opportunity to redevelop the building in a responsible way.”

Both McDonald and Jahn suggest that an adaptive reuse of the building utilizing newer technology, building materials, and floor plans would address many criticisms of the Thompson Center, mainly inefficiencies with heating and cooling as well as some aesthetic characteristics of the complex. But ultimately, McDonald says that the goal is to preserve an important chapter in Chicago architecture for future generations to use and appreciate.

“The Thompson Center is indicative of the postmodern movement and Helmut’s goal of reflecting a transparent and open government through design is significant and full of impact,” says McDonald. “It’s important that people see that this building has a place in Chicago’s future and it’s our job to help ensure that it has a place as a future landmark.”

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