Architect Helmut Jahn’s kaleidoscopic, controversial State of Illinois Center/James R. Thompson Center in Chicago shocked the world when it opened in 1985. It may not be long for this world. Today this iconic building is a bit faded due to decades of deferred maintenance. Occupying an entire block in the heart of the Loop, the Thompson Center is potentially threatened with sale and demolition by the state legislature and Governor Rauner.
It is one of Chicago’s most iconic late 20th-century, post-modern buildings and it represented a radical departure from the design of conventional government office buildings of its time. Despite initial construction challenges, this singular architectural vision of an open, accessible, and inspiring civic building, defined by its iconic, soaring atrium remains intact. Helmut Jahn is one of Chicago’s most famous contemporary architects, whose career began here with C. F. Murphy and whose work is now celebrated around the world from Chicago to Berlin to Shanghai. This is a building for the people of Chicago, for the State of Illinois, for everyone see, to experience and be inspired by. Most importantly it is open to all.
We strongly encourage the City of Chicago move to officially recognize and protect the thrilling civic spaces and their visionary design, which continue Chicago’s legacy of bold, risk-taking architecture. The vast soaring atrium lends itself to highly collaborative potential uses. We encourage the State of Illinois to designate a portion of the building to be an incubator that would provide discounted rent to small arts organizations, nonprofits, tech start-ups, and other creative uses to help drive innovation in Chicago. By seeding these organizations at the Thompson ‘Innovation’ Center, they would help to activate the building and help to provide the vibrancy to the building that was always contemplated but never realized. Further, the building’s public atrium should be embraced through live art and performances to be held throughout the year, but especially during the winter months.
Efforts to both protect its architectural vision and to activate the building should be implemented. A comprehensive redevelopment plan could correct the deferred maintenance. A tower-addition study by Helmut Jahn’s design firm has suggested that the existing building could accommodate new construction that would add square footage while remaining sensitive to the historic building, atrium, and public space.
We strongly encourage the City of Chicago and State of Illinois to move quickly to designate the Thompson Center/State of Illinois Building a Chicago Landmark. This would protect the building, plaza, and the public sculpture, “Monument with Standing Beast” by Jean Dubuffet.