Reimagining the Thompson Center


Public Pool  Image: ©Perkins&Will


The Chicago Architecture Club Shines the Spotlight on

Another Endangered Landmark


What do Bertrad Goldberg and Helmut Jahn have in common? Besides having high-profile buildings threatened by demolition, both served as subject matter for two competitions sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Club (CAC)—raising public consciousness about their impending fate. They both produced buildings in a city famous for its architecture that have been abandoned: Goldberg’s Future Prentice Women’s Hospital, demolished in 2014 after a valiant effort by preservationists to save it from the wrecking ball; and Jahn’s Thompson Center, now the object of a similar effort by the State of Illinois to sell it to a developer.


Looking back at the fate suffered by the Prentice Hospital after the CAC staged that competition, some might consider the decision to stage a similar event a bad omen for the future of the Thompson Center. But historical failures also have their uses; they can serve as important lessons. The Thompson Center certainly had problems leading to its probable demise; but shortcuts undertaken for the sake of budget should also be taken as a warning sign for future projects: substituting single-pane windows instead of double-pane, as specified by Jahn, no doubt was the most serious decision leading to the building’s climate problems. And fixing those and other issues would now cost at least $100M. Still, such failures should not inhibit experimentation. And the CAC Thompson Center competition also sends a message in that regard.


Rejuvenation  Image: ©Yuqi Shao and Andrew Li (IIT)


The Thompson Center has always provided grist for hot discussions among Chicago architecture aficionados and beyond, The CAC even has adopted the postmodern label in describing the structure’s style, a notion that many journalists have latched onto. Strangely, some, including many in academia, have come to this conclusion, citing its departure from Mies’s minimalism across the street, or “the way it maintains the street wall on two sides, opens to a formal symmetrical plaza originally bounded by eroded columns and contains a great central interior space like city halls and state capitals. It should be seen as a reworking of classical prototypes.” (Robert Bruegmann). Still Bruegmann and many other local architects simply regard the building’s style as “modern.”

As for its style, first time visitors to the area might regard it as a breath of fresh air, at least in its heyday, much like the effect the Pompidou Centre has provided for those who first encountered the museum while first encountering it during a walk in the Beaubourg neighborhood in Paris.


The competition

The competition drew 59 entries from architects residing in countries around the world. Aside from the rule that the proposals be described adequately with four boards, the technical requirements were quite flexible—mainly because the entrants were to write their own program.
As for the jury, there could be no question as to the qualifications of the panel that was to adjudicate the entries:
Carol Ross Barney, FAIA, HASLA, Ross Barney Architects, Chicago
Michelle T. Boone, President, Poetry Foundation, Chicago
Philip Castillo, FAIA, Vice President, JAHN, Chicago
Peter D. Cook, AIA, NOMA, Washington, DC
Thomas Heatherwick, Heatherwick Studio, London
Mikyoung Kim, Mikjoung Kim Design, Boston


The final ranking included three winners and four honorable mentions. All three in the winner’s circle were from Chicago offcices, as were two of the four honorable mentions.


• “Offset: The Vertical Loop” by Tom Lee and Christopher Eastman of Eastman Lee Architects
• “One Chicago School” by Jay Longo, James Michaels, Kaitlin Frankforter, Michael Quach, Abaan Zia, Mackenzie Anderson, Nicolas Waidele, Roberta Brucato, Zachary Michaliska of Solomon Cordwell Buenz, Chicago
• “Public Pool” by David Rader, Jerry Johnson, Ryan Monteleagre, and Matt Zelensek of Perkins&Will, Chicago

• “Rejuvenation” by Yuqi Shao and Andrew Li, students at the College of Architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology
• “Ripple” by Patrick Carata, Simon Cygielski, Sarah Bush, Ilyssa Kaserman, Sean King, Amparito Martinez, Marcin Rysniak, Mica Manaois, Ed Curley, and Cameron Scott of Epstein
• “There’s Something for Everyone” by Chava Danielson, Eric Haas, Tim Jordan, Bohan Charlie Lang, and Xixi Luo of DSH architecture, Los Angeles
• “Thompson-Scraper“ by Wenyi Zhu of Zhu Wenyi Atelier at Tsinghua University, Beijing

Although we did not see all of the entries, the highly ranked proposals had a creativity one might expect from a competition based solely on ideas. Had this been a competition sponsored by a real client, with a real commission in mind, only “Offset: The Vertical Loop” by Eastman Lee Architects might have represented a proposal for a serious developer—looking for a John Portman-like hotel as a model But an atrium swimming pool as a viable possibility? That would be a hard sell.



Winner (1 of 3)
“Offset: The Vertical Loop”
Tom Lee and Christopher Eastman 
Eastman Lee Architects
Chicago, Illinois

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Helmut Jahn: A Life as Innovator



Blending Technology with Aesthetics


On May 8th of this year, the world lost one of its foremost architects in Helmut Jahn, 81, who died in St. Charles, a suburb of Chicago, his adopted home in America. Born and educated in Germany, Helmut arrived in America two years after receiving his degree in architecture from the Technical University in Munich. Arriving in the U.S. in 1966, he chose to pursue graduate studies at Mies van der Rohe’s architecture program at the Illinois Institute of Technology (hereafter IIT), mentored there by Myron Goldsmith and Fazlur Kahn. Though certainly influenced during his time at IIT with their modernist attitude toward architecture, one cannot discount his years of study in Munich, which saw a run-up to the design of Munich’s Olympic Games site, resulting in a novel tent-like design from a competition won by Günther Behnisch, with a subsequent assist from later Pritzker Prize winner, Frei Otto.


   After IIT, Jahn immediately went to work at C.F. Murphy & Associates in Chicago, which had just completed the Richard J. Daley Center in downtown Chicago, a structure notable for its Cor-Ten steel façade. In 1976, Jahn, together with C.F. Murphy collegue, Jim Goetsch, won the Minnesota II design competition for the Minnesota Capital Government and History Center. Although never built, as an important competition it brought national recognition to both architects. With his stature as a lead designer in the firm, Jahn became Principal, President, and CEO of C.F. Murphy in 1981.


   During his interview with COMPETITIONS in February 1994, Helmut spoke about numerous competitions he had participated in. Aside from the firms many successes in competitions, especially in Germany, there were disappointments along the way. Commenting on the Harold Washington Library competition, he stated, “The client asked for a forward-looking building and got just the opposite.” Still, he suggested that had he won, “I would be spending most of my time in court.”


Strahlauer Platz (Berlin) winning competition entry (1993)


   Many have experienced Jahn’s projects firsthand, whether it was in an airport terminal in Chicago or Thailand, passing through Chicago’s James R. Thompson Center in Chicago to catch a ride on the L, or passing the time in a restaurant in Berlin’s Sony Center. The latter, the result of a competition where he prevailed over five other high-profile architects, has always been one of my favorite destinations when on a visit to Berlin. There one can enjoy not only the ambience created by the giant open atrium, but admire how he solved the pedestrian-access issue to the interior with its multiple openings which served as an invitation to those curious pedestrians on the perimeter.


Deutsche Post Tower, Bonn, Germany  Photos: Stanley Collyer


   Another favorite has been his Post Tower in Bonn, Germany. Certainly an exception to the rule in this low-rise city, and anchoring one end of the city’s downtown thoroughfare, it makes a friendly statement, for it does not present a sole, lonely object to the naked eye, but an attraction to view at close range. What makes all this possible is the addition of a Corbu-like building nestled at its side, containing a cafeteria and meeting rooms. Here Jahn has managed to capture the essence of place, both in scale and the aesthetic.


Helmut Jahn’s success was also due to his choice of many of those talented experts who collaborated with him. One of the most important was Werner Sobek, possibly Germany’s premier structural engineer, and one who was there to guide those advances in technology, so important in the realization of several of Jahn’s most challenging projects.


We can only hope for more Helmut Jahns in the future, not only to explore the limits of what technology can do for us; but at the same time lend their designs a sense of the spiritual.


Sony Center, Berlin
Winning competition entry (1992)
Completion (2000)

Sony Center Competition model (1992) 


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