October 2015 brought news of Governor Bruce Rauner’s designs on selling the Thompson Center, architect Helmut Jahn’s arresting state government building in the Loop. Here are five intriguing facts that form a backstory for Jahn’s singular creation.
by Jen Masengarb, Director of Interpretation and Research
1. Designed with Springfield in mind
While the Thompson Center may appear futuristic, it actually hearkens back to the past. Architect Helmut Jahn’s 1980s design is a postmodern reinterpretation of the 1889 Illinois state capitol building. Erected in Springfield, that domed structure is centered on a large open site. But for downtown Chicago, Jahn inverted that plan, pulling his public space inside the building. The Thompson Center occupies nearly 3/4 of its site, and its massive atrium is topped by a sliced-off cylinder, reminiscent of many classically-inspired, domed government buildings. And as the AIA Guide to Chicago put it, the building “ennobles such humble tasks as renewing driver’s licenses and picking up tax forms.”
2. Part of a larger plan
While Burnham and Bennett’s 1909 Plan of Chicago may be our city’s most famous urban planning effort, Chicago has seen many large scale redevelopment schemes. During the late 1970s, the city commissioned the North Loop Redevelopment Plan, designed to protect and enhance the downtown core. The site of what became the State of Illinois Building (now the Thompson Center)—the block bounded by Dearborn, Randolph, Lake and Clark—was designated as part of an urban renewal zone.
3. Eight schemes for a tricky site
When architects begin a new project, the way a building will look (called “aesthetics”) is not typically the first issue they address in the design process. Instead, one challenge often tackled early on is how the building will sit on its site and—based on how much square footage is needed—its overall shape and form (called “massing”). This was very true of the State of Illinois Building. Helmut Jahn developed a set of eight possible massing schemes for the project. Each scheme was evaluated based on how much of the site the building would occupy, the cost for each different form, how well the building’s functions would operate in each form, the technical difficulties and the aesthetics. In the end, state officials led by then-Governor James Thompson chose a stepped-back, mid-rise design that included an arcade and a central atrium.
4. In what style shall we build?
At the intersection of Randolph and Dearborn streets, you can get a look at three levels of our government, three very different architectural styles, and three very different eras of how government wanted to be perceived by the public. Holabird & Roche’s 1911 Chicago City Hall and County Building used the architectural language of ancient Greece (rows of columns, Classical ornament) to portray a sense of solidity and democratic tradition. The 1965 Richard J. Daley Center (originally the Chicago Civic Center), designed by C.F. Murphy Associates, arrived during an era heavily influenced by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s elegant, International Style steel-and-glass towers. In that era, government wanted to be seen as modern, efficient, powerful. By the 1980s, when the Thompson Center was constructed, the building’s design sought to represent the ideals of a transparent and accessible government.
5. Slushies in the basement
Well, sort of. There aren’t actual, edible slushies served in the Thompson Center’s basement. But the building does boast an innovative, closed loop, environmentally-friendly cooling system that’s kind of like a giant slushie machine. Each night, when energy costs are lower, massive chillers in the basement make thousands of pounds of an icy slush. During the day, this slushy mixture of water and glycol (which lowers the water’s freezing point, while still allowing it to flow) is pumped throughout the building. To cool the Thompson Center, air conditioning systems blow air across the pipes containing the chilled mixture. By the next evening, the warm water and glycol cocktail has been pumped back to the basement where the process begins all over again.