The 2021 Chicago Prize Competition tasks designers with reimagining an imperiled Thompson Center

Ideas Wanted

The 2021 Chicago Prize Competition tasks designers with reimagining an imperiled Thompson Center

Helmut Jahn’s Thompson Center has appeared on Preservation Chicago’s Chicago 7 Most Endangered list in 2018, 2019, and 2020. (JAHN/Courtesy Chicago Architectural Club, CAC)

The Chicago Architecture Center (CAC) and Chicago Architectural Club have joined forces to host a design competition to challenge architects, designers, planners, students, artists, and other interested parties to breathe new life into downtown Chicago’s beloved postmodernist “people’s palace,” the James R. Thompson Center. The 2021 edition of the Architectural Club’s Chicago Prize Competition is seeking design proposals focused on restorative architecture—that is, ideas to preserve the erstwhile governmental office building while integrating it with a transit hub and lending the project new life.

Completed in 1985 as the State of Illinois Center, the audacious Helmut Jahn-designed landmark sits on a prime, 3-acre piece of Loop real estate and is currently being offloaded by the cash-strapped state. A zoning change approved by Chicago City Council last month could see the endangered Windy City spaceship potentially demolished and replaced by a superlatively lanky skyscraper. While the building is wildly energy inefficient and expensive to maintain in its current state, it’s not irredeemable, and deleting its iconic 17-story atrium from existence is far from the only option.

“The Thompson Center has been pivotal to Chicago as a transit hub, a revolutionary civic center that opened itself to the city, and an architectural milestone that symbolized a bold transition and looked toward a new future of architecture,” reads the official competition brief. “Can our approach to renewal be one that doesn’t result in erasure but that builds upon the foundations of the past?”

interior of a postmodern atrium
Rife with new possibilities: inside the Thompson Center. (JAHN/Chicago Architectural League, CAC)

Jahn, who was tragically killed while riding his bicycle in the Chicago suburbs early last month, had his own unique ideas for the building’s second act. Released in February of last year, his ten-page reuse plan, “Thompson Center: Inside Out,” envisioned a reborn Thompson Center populated by tech offices, a hotel, and co-living apartments equipped with lushly landscaped terraces. Most dramatically, the plan called for removing the building’s front doors and transforming the photogenic atrium into a sheltered outdoor space. It’s “something new with a space that doesn’t belong to the state of Illinois but to the people of Chicago,” he said of the plan. Jahn, a German-born designer of buildings regarded for being unfailingly ahead of their time, was 81 years old at the time of his death.

“Governor Pritzker has the opportunity, after years of neglect by his predecessors, to lead thru the sale of the Thompson Center by giving it new life,” said Jahn in 2020. “Repurposing the building the right way could go beyond what the building ever was, making it better, more public, and a place where you want to work, stay overnight, live or just visit and feel good. Miracles and dreams can become real.”

The 2021 Chicago Prize Competition seeks schemes of a similar spirit. As detailed in the brief: “There is not a set program for this competition; your definition of the program is part of the design problem. Submissions will be assessed on the identification of the issues and the design proposal’s efficacy in addressing these issues.”

First place winners will receive a cash prize of $1,500 while second and third place entrants will be awarded $1,000 and $500, respectively. Registration for the competition is set to close on July 2 with a submission deadline of July 19. The winning proposals will be announced in August and be later displayed at a special CAC exhibition held in the fall.

“The Thompson Center, the focus of the 2021 Chicago Prize Competition, is a poignant subject to reimagine as this iconic structure and site faces a doubtful future and as we speculate on the ‘post-pandemic’ contemporary city,” said Elva Rubio, co-president of the Chicago Architectural Club.

More competition particulars can be found here.