The otherworldly interior of the Thompson Center Courtesy of Nathan Eddy

Illinois politicians agree that Chicago’s Thompson Center should be replaced. Architects and preservationists beg to differ, and a new documentary presents their case.

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel have finally found something they can agree on: selling off the Thompson Center, a state office building in downtown Chicago, to a buyer who will presumably demolish it. Their rare alliance, however, has galvanized the architecture and preservation communities in Chicago, who are prepared to fight tooth and nail to save this pioneering, albeit polarizing, Postmodern icon.    

A new short documentary, “Starship Chicago” by Nathan Eddy, serves as both a love letter to this beleaguered building and a call to action for those who think it’s worth saving. The film comes at a time when famous examples of Postmodern architecture like Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building—whose proposed renovation inspired Eddy to post a petition—are increasingly under threat. The question looming over the Thompson Center, in particular, is whether the wider public, as well as local leaders, believe the architectural and historical value of the building outweighs its material deficiencies, or its apparent economic inviability.

Starship Chicago from Nathan Eddy on Vimeo.

Few of the film’s interviewees seem to find the Thompson Center beautiful—noted Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman calls it “a piece of shit.” But he, like the rest of the talking heads in the film, believes the building should be preserved for its architectural significance. It was a boundary-breaking structure when it was completed in 1985, becoming one of the first curved buildings in downtown Chicago’s hard, rectilinear cityscape, and catapulting its architect, Helmut Jahn, to stardom.

The Thompson Center captured Chicago’s imagination, if not its heart. The building’s rounded, all-glass exterior, as well as its cylindrical interior atrium, made it look like an alien visitor, earning it the “starship” moniker. The design was actually a riff on the classic American statehouse, with glass walls representing government transparency and the large skylight capping the atrium meant to evoke a dome. The busy interior of the atrium is painted in red (or salmon), white, and blue, perhaps the structure’s most jarring design element.  

The cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the soprano Renee Fleming perform in the Thompson Center in 2012. (Kiichiro Sato/AP)

“As radical as Helmut’s proposal was, it reflected the idea that Chicago was in many ways the architectural capital of the world,” Jim Thompson, former governor of Illinois, for whom the building was named, says in the film.  

Thompson’s words speak to the building’s essential identity. Rather than being a well-functioning space, the Thompson Center has from its infancy been primarily an aesthetic statement, another page in the architectural canon. Its angled glass walls, combined with a faulty air conditioner, created a severe greenhouse effect the summer after the building opened. Employees would set up umbrellas over their desks to block the heat and glare.

The air conditioning was fixed, but in the ensuing decades the building was allowed to fall into disrepair. In 2009, a 600-pound chunk of granite fell from the building’s facade onto the sidewalk. Columns are beginning to crumble at their bases, and the structure’s glass exterior is in desperate need of a wash. Employees still complain about the sounds and smells wafting up from the ground-floor food court.

In 2015, when Governor Rauner first recommended selling the building, he claimed it required $100 million in repairs because of deferred maintenance. This winter, when he renewed his call to sell the building—complete with renderings of a 1,700-foot-tall Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill–designed tower for the site—that number had ballooned to $327 million, approximately the value of the building and its land. (Ironically, $80 million of the additional costs would come from repairs to the heating and cooling system.) The governor’s plan has since been pitched as a potential Amazon HQ2 location.  

Smelling inevitability, Helmut Jahn quickly came out with his own competing proposal, which is only briefly touched on in the film. Jahn would construct a skinny, 1,340-foot-tall tower in the back corner of the property, preserving the vast majority of the original structure. The old government building could be repurposed for a new use, the critics and designers in the film say.

“People want authenticity; they want to be in places that have a story. They’ll stay in hotel rooms, they’ll look at office spaces that tell that kind of story,” says Bonnie McDonald, president and CEO of Landmarks Illinois, which placed the Thompson Center on its list of most endangered buildings for 2017.  

Even if the governor’s current renovation estimates are exaggerated, it’s hard to imagine a developer shelling out $100 million or more to fix the 19-story building when they could glean a lot more square footage for a lot less money by tearing the place down. That is, of course, if the government gets its act together to sell it. Despite mutual agreement, the mayor, the governor, and Michael Madigan, the state speaker of the house, can’t seem to hammer out the details of the sale in this politically gridlocked state.

For now, the Thompson Center, with its 2,000 active state employees, appears doomed to languish in a state of disrepair. If and when a demolition is proposed, it will be interesting to see who lines up to try to save it. Will ordinary citizens fight for a quirky civic space that provides a brief respite from all of downtown Chicago’s right angles?

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