Blair Kamin: Thompson Center Sale Shouldn't Automatically Mean Demolition (Chicago Tribune)
Now, a new crisis looms, this one over the fate of the James R. Thompson Center, the spaceship-shaped glitter palace that is, despite formal and functional flaws, one of Chicago's most significant works of postmodern architecture. The slow-motion crisis is moving incrementally, but seemingly inevitably, toward demolition. And it crossed a key threshold this week when state legislators approved a bill that would allow Gov. Bruce Rauner to sell the 17-story, 32-year-oldstructure designed by Helmut Jahn .
The proposed sale isn't the problem. The real problem is what the sale is supposed to bring about: The Thompson Center's destruction and the construction of a new building (or buildings) with up to four times as much square footage. But demolition shouldn't be the only option. As a slew of recent renovations has shown, new uses can be found for old buildings. The wildly popular Chicago Athletic Association hotel, a Venetian Gothic palace across Michigan Avenue from Millennium Park , is just one example.
I know what many of you are thinking: The Thompson Center's exterior palette of silver, robin's-egg blue and salmon is a cheesy-looking mess. State office workers hate working there. Good riddance!
But the building's deplorable condition is the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy: For years, the cash-poor state has spent only on essential maintenance needs, leading problems and costs to pile up. Ergo: The state must sell. This logic is as circular as the floor plan of the Thompson Center's atrium.
Equally problematic is the way that Rauner wants to engineer the sale: He'd have Chicago's City Council max out the zoning -- and, thus, the sale price -- of the Thompson Center property. The state, consultants estimate, could reap as much as $300 million . So much for the Republican mantra of letting local authorities, rather than distant rulers, determine land-use issues. Chicago , meanwhile, could get tens of millions of dollars in development fees from the deal, funds that could subsidize growth in economically challenged neighborhoods.
Granted, the city is insisting that the state or a developer pay for keeping the Thompson Center's CTA station, the system's second-busiest, open and running during construction. But the wrangling between city and state officials reportedly focuses on how they will share the spoils of the deal -- not the Thompson Center's architectural and urban design value. That value is considerable.
In 1991, when my predecessor, Paul Gapp , drew up a list of Chicago's 10 most important post-World War II works of architecture, the Thompson Center (then known as the State of Illinois Center) was on it, alongside such masterworks as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's 860-880 N. Lake Shore Drive towers , the John Hancock Center and 333 West Wacker Drive . Here is what Gapp wrote:
"The building is an uncomfortable, impractical working environment, and its architectural intentions are in some respects muddy. Yet [Jahn] endowed the building with an interior public space of unstinting grandness that makes possible the celebrative, ceremonial and symbolic gestures too long missing from governmental centers."
Gapp continued: The "State of Illinois Center also marked in Chicago a bold tearing away from the Miesianism in which even Jahn himself had for a time been rooted. For better or worse, nothing would ever be quite the same in Chicago architecture after Jahn's grandiose and quirky creation. It was as much a historic turning point in its way" as Mies' Lake Shore Drive towers.
While the center's condition has deteriorated since then, the passage of time has revealed its urban design value because it provides a climate-controlled clearing in the North Loop's ever more dense urban forest. Losing its atrium would deprive downtown of an indoor public space that is as valuable as the Daley Center and Federal Center plazas. A new skyscraper would be hard-pressed to match the atrium's spatial drama or its role as a gathering place.
Historic preservationists, who often seek government intervention to prevent the demolition of historic buildings, are playing a different card this time: Let the market and the development community determine the Thompson Center's future, figuring that the odds are better for saving the building that way than if it's left in the state's hands.
"The private market has a better chance to make that building a showpiece again," said Lisa DiChiera , advocacy director for Landmarks Illinois, the Chicago -based preservation group. "We honestly believe there are enough developers who get how this building could really be something dynamic."
Watching elevator cars climb toward the center's skylit dome, it's easy to imagine an atrium hotel, like the ones designed by Atlanta architect John Portman , in this building. Jahn himself floated such an idea in January, part of a plan that would splice a boldly expressive, 1,340-foot hotel and residential tower onto the center's southwest corner. At more than 2.2 million square feet, the project would nearly double the center's existing square footage.
To be sure, the state's Thompson Center deal is far from done. There is speculation that the governor would resort to an amendatory veto after Rauner administration officials argued that the new bill does not give the governor enough influence over future zoning changes to the center's property. The back-and-forth is likely to go on for months.
Nonetheless, Jahn's approach, which puts a premium on renovation and expansion rather than demolition, is a path worth exploring -- before it's too late.
(c)2017 the Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.