Winning designs revealed for the Thompson Center Design Ideas Competition

Making Helmut Proud

Winning designs revealed for the Thompson Center Design Ideas Competition

The Plaza at Public Pool, one of three equal winning entries in the Thompson Center Design Ideas Competition. (Perkins&Will/Courtesy Thompson Center Design Ideas Competition)

The Chicago Architecture Center (CAC) and the Chicago Architectural Club have revealed the three equal winning design proposals in this year’s Chicago Prize Competition, which in its closely watched 2021 iteration, has been dubbed as the Thompson Center Design Ideas Competition. Starting today, the three winning concepts (joined by four additional finalists that have been bestowed with received honorable mentions by the competition jury) will be presented at CAC’s East Wacker Drive galleries as a pop-up exhibit within the larger limited-run exhibition, Helmut Jahn: Life+Architecture. The exhibition will remain on view through the end of October and a CAC-hosted forum featuring the three winning teams is slated for early November.

Launched in June, the competition, presented jointly by CAC and the Chicago Architectural Club, invited entrants to envision restorative design concepts for the James R. Thompson Center, a postmodernist Windy City landmark designed by the late German-born Chicagoan architect Helmut Jahn. Although its future has been murky since 2015 when then-Governor Bruce Rauner first proposed selling the building, the fate of the imperiled “postmodern people’s palace” is now very much a hot topic in Chicago after the State of Illinois officially put the 1.2 million-square-foot property up for sale in May. (The state has since extended its bidding deadline from interested parties although it still intends to complete the sale by April of next year.)

Per the competition brief, participants were tasked with preserving the erstwhile governmental office building, completed in 1985 as the State of Illinois Center, while integrating it with a transit hub and lending the project new life. In total, 59 registrants from five countries entered the competition, representing a diverse mix of professional firms and established designers, emerging architects, and students. The seven finalists were announced late last month.

The trio of winning designs, all from Chicago-based teams, certainly lend the Thompson Center new life and then some.

Understandably receiving an outsized amount of attention when the finalists were first revealed in August is Public Pool, a splashy—both literally and figuratively—reimagining that inserts an indoor waterpark into the concourse level of the Thompson Center’s iconic atrium. The building’s existing office space flanking the atrium would be transformed into a hotel. The winning concept was submitted by David Rader, Jerry Johnson, Ryan Monteleagre, and Matt Zelensek with the Chicago studio of Perkins&Will.

an indoor waterpark with slides
Public Pool (Perkins&Will/Courtesy Thompson Center Design Ideas Competition)
an indoor waterpark with slides in a massive atrium
Public Pool (Perkins&Will/Courtesy Thompson Center Design Ideas Competition)

As detailed in a statement, Public Pool embraces the building’s (historically problematic) “greenhouse-like qualities” in lieu of “resisting the environmental effects of its architecture:”

“Architecturally, the Thompson Center has never been ideally suited to its use. While its civic ambitions were realized, the building’s excessive glazing and high heat loads made conditions very uncomfortable for occupants. When the Center first opened, employees would wear swimsuits to the office. This foreshadows what the building should always have been—a waterpark.”

“The Thompson Center is a significant public space in Chicago’s urban realm, and participating in this ideas competition was a tremendous opportunity to make the case for the Center’s reuse and preservation while re-imagining what public space can be,” added Rader. “In the context of global climate change, we as designers should seek every opportunity to reuse and repurpose existing structures instead of tearing them down.”

Joining Public Pool in the winner’s circle is One Chicago School, an idea that “reimagines the building as an urban center for public education,” per Kaitlin Frankforter, a member of the concept design team from Chicago-headquartered multidisciplinary firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz. (Joining Frankforter were colleagues Jay Longo, James Michaels, Michael Quach, Abaan Zia, Mackenzie Anderson, Nicolas Waidele, Roberta Brucato, and Zachary Michaliska.)

interior rendering of a reimagining building atrium with hanging plants
One Chicago School (Solomon Cordwell Buenz/Courtesy Thompson Center Design Ideas Competition)
interior rendering of a renovated building atrium
One Chicago School (Solomon Cordwell Buenz/Courtesy Thompson Center Design Ideas Competition)

“Our team’s response is driven by the notions of building preservation, rethinking the role of large mixed-use buildings, and maintaining an inclusive public space for all of Chicago,” added Frankforter.

Per the project team, One Chicago School “envisions a new prototype public school focused on public policy and civic engagement for students in Chicago to learn, question, and ignite change.” The team notes:

“The central atrium space remains the main feature of the building but is turned inside-out as an extension of the exterior plaza urban space with three ‘green trays’ located at each of the setback tiers of the façade containing educational outdoor playgrounds, gardens, and playing fields. As exterior space, the mechanical systems required to cool the atrium can be removed to save energy and upgrade costs while providing natural ventilation and biophilic green spaces for the school.”

Submitted by Christopher Eastman and Tom Lee of Eastman Lee Architects, Offset: The Vertical Loop is perhaps the most straightforward, but no less visionary, winning idea when it comes to the already-iconic building’s adaptive reuse afterlife. It reimagines the Thompson Center as a greenery-shrouded, mixed-use vertical neighborhood anchored by a sprawling ground-level park. The 17-story building’s floors would be zoned for different uses, with residential levels stacked above office-dedicated floors.

section drawing of an office building
Offset: Vertical Loop (Eastman Lee/Courtesy Thompson Center Design Ideas Competition)

As detailed in the project statement:

“We propose an intervention where a new thermal envelope is offset inboard in both plan and section from the existing curtain wall. This frees the existing façade from its responsibility (and need for repair) as a weather barrier. The removal of the existing vision glass panels and preservation of the original opaque curtain wall elements transforms an inefficient envelope into a screen that acts as a shading device, while preserving the graphic qualities of the iconic façade. Users and the public are free to move about this newfound interstitial space throughout the building.

Offsetting the public use of the building in section allows the ground plane to become a public park, open on all sides. Since the existing floor area of the Thompson Center represents roughly one quarter of the total area of the Loop, this park becomes a gateway to what is a new vertical extension of the Loop, comprised of a mix of dynamic programs that gradate from public to private as one moves up the building. Zoned by floor, it affords the opportunity for small scale development in the heart of the Loop.”

“We are humbled to be among the winners of the 2021 Chicago Prize,” added Eastman and Lee in a statement. “By participating in the competition, our hope was to shed light on how to approach building preservation in a way that could reduce the cost to repair the building, and to help support the chorus of efforts to preserve the Thompson Center for future generations.”

drawing of a building atrium
Offset: Vertical Loop (Eastman Lee/Courtesy Thompson Center Design Ideas Competition)

The four competition finalists now on view alongside Public Pool, One Chicago School, and Offset: The Vertical Loop in the CAC exhibition are:

  • Rejuvenation | Submitted by Yuqi Shao and Andrew Li, students at the College of Architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology
  • Ripple | Submitted by Patrick Carata, Simon Cygielski, Sarah Bush, Ilyssa Kaserman, Sean King, Amparito Martinez, Marcin Rysniak, Mica Manaois, Ed Curley, and Cameron Scott of Chicago-headquartered multidisciplinary design and construction company Epstein
  • There’s Something for Everyone | Submitted by Danielson, Eric Haas, Tim Jordan, Bohan Charlie Lang, and Xixi Luo of Los Angeles-based DSH //architecture
  • ThompsonScraper | Submitted by Wenyi Zhu of Zhu Wenyi Atelier at Tsinghua University, Beijing

The competition jury included Carol Ross Barney, founder and design principal of Ross Barney Architects, FAIA, HASLA; Michelle T. Boone, president of The Poetry Foundation; Philip Castillo, executive vice president at JAHN, FAIA; Peter D.Cook, design principal at HGA Architects & Engineers, AIA, NOMA; Thomas Heatherwick, founder and design director of Heatherwick Studio; Mikyoung Kim, founding principal of Mikyoung Kim Design, and Landmarks Illinois president and CEO, Bonnie McDonald.

“The jury’s selected winners for the 2021 Chicago Prize Competition provide three clear and attainable futures for the Thompson Center,” said Elva Rubio, co-president of the Chicago Architectural Club. “The early November public forum, featuring the architects of the three winning designs, will be a rare opportunity for the public to participate in a debate on the future for the Thompson Center as the State of Illinois reviews the proposals for the purchase of and possible demolishing of the building without protections.”

More details on CAC’s Helmut Jahn: Life+Architecture can be found here.