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Chicago Architecture Center creates pop-up exhibition for Thompson Center design ideas

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5 MIN READ – The Chicago Architecture Center (CAC) and the Chicago Architectural Club have announced the jury’s selection of three winning designs for the Thompson Center Design Ideas Competition that represent three distinct, creative visions for the State of Illinois Thompson Center designed by Helmut Jahn, built in 1984 and put up for sale in May 2021. The three equal winning design proposals were created by Eastman Lee Architects, Solomon Cordwell Buenz and Perkins&Will. The winning designs, and the four finalist designs awarded honorable mention, are now available for viewing through October at a pop-up exhibit at the Chicago Architecture Center’s East Wacker Drive galleries. A forum on the future of the Thompson Center is planned for early November at the CAC.


The three equal winning design proposals are:

  • ”Offset: The Vertical Loop" proposes a new thermal enclosure behind the original curtain wall set atop a ground-level public park. Each floor is zoned, from public uses at the ground level to commercial above, along with private residences and vegetable gardens at the roof. Hanging plants in the atrium connect this new vertical neighborhood. Submitted by Christopher Eastman and Tom Lee of Eastman Lee Architects.
  • "One Chicago School" is a new prototype public school focused on public policy and civic engagement for students in Chicago to learn, question, and ignite change. Submitted by Jay Longo, James Michaels, Kaitlin Frankforter, Michael Quach, Abaan Zia, Mackenzie Anderson, Nicolas Waidele, Roberta Brucato, Zachary Michaliska of Solomon Cordwell Buenz, Chicago. 

One Chicago School Atrium

  • "Public Pool" reimagines the Thompson Center’s iconic atrium as a public waterpark with active ground-level programs and a hotel above. Inspired by the playful attitude of Helmut Jahn’s post-modern interior, the proposal imagines a place that could be accessible to all Chicagoans and creates a unique destination in the heart of the Loop. Submitted by David Rader, Jerry Johnson, Ryan Monteleagre, and Matt Zelensek of Perkins&Will, Chicago.

Public Pool Entry reduced size

The competition was created to give the Thompson Center new life through restorative architecture while preserving its architecture and public character. The competition was open to anyone with a vision for the building including students, architects, designers, planners, and artists. The jury reviewed dozens of proposals from 59 registrants from five countries representing work by professional designers and established firms as well as young architects and students. The seven finalist designs were announced on August 24.

The jurors include international experts in the design of museums and civic spaces, restorative architecture and landscape architecture, historic preservation, civic culture, and the work of Helmut Jahn, architect of the Thompson Center. The jury includes Carol Ross Barney, Founder and Design Principal, Ross Barney Architects, FAIA, HASLA; Michelle T. Boone, President, The Poetry Foundation; Philip Castillo, Executive Vice President, JAHN, FAIA; Peter D. Cook, Design Principal, HGA Architects & Engineers, AIA, NOMA; Thomas Heatherwick, Founder and Design Director, Heatherwick Studio; Mikyoung Kim, Founding Principal, Mikyoung Kim Design; Bonnie McDonald, President & CEO, Landmarks Illinois.

The finalists included four additional proposals that the jury awarded honorable mention:

  • "Rejuvenation" wraps the existing exterior in a new “smart glass” façade using electronically tintable glass controlled by occupants to improve comfort, maximize daylight, and reduce energy costs. Exterior video projections share Chicago civic news and digital arts media. Submitted by Yuqi Shao and Andrew Li, students at the College of Architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology.

Rejuvenation aerial view at night

  • "Ripple" envisions a new sustainable public attraction comprised of auditoriums, art galleries, and community spaces rising within the exterior arc of the current atrium. These new spaces lead to a top-floor urban farm with rooftop green houses that use the existing CTA tracks to distribute the produce from the farm to food deserts around the city. Submitted by Patrick Carata, Simon Cygielski, Sarah Bush, Ilyssa Kaserman, Sean King, Amparito Martinez, Marcin Rysniak, Mica Manaois, Ed Curley, and Cameron Scott of Epstein.

Ripple image 1

  • "There's Something for Everyone" creates an authentic new civic and social space linked to cultural groups across the city. Existing floor plates contain support or “back of house” spaces while the volume of the atrium will house performance stages, cinemas, art galleries, and rehearsal spaces creating strong ties to the diverse arts and civic life of the City of Chicago. Submitted by Chava Danielson, Eric Haas, Tim Jordan, Bohan Charlie Lang, and Xixi Luo of DSH architecture, Los Angeles. 

Theres Something for Everyone board 1

  • "Thompson-Scraper“ opens the atrium to the outdoors while wrapping the interior floors above with a façade that becomes a 3D LED matrix able to display images and video. Using the existing elevator banks as a core tube support structure, new floors rise above the existing structure with the familiar step-backs and topped with a conical “spire” also wrapped in 3D LED matrix. Submitted by Wenyi Zhu of Zhu Wenyi Atelier at Tsinghua University, Beijing.

1 Eye level view to The Thompson Scraper

The sale and possible demolition of the Thompson Center has been controversial among Chicagoans and architecture and design professionals around the world. Despite the toll caused by lack of maintenance, Helmut Jahn’s design of the Thompson Center is prized by the design world as a unique example of post-modern architectural design in a civic building meant to draw citizens into the daily workings of government. The State of Illinois issued a request for proposals for the Thompson Center site in August 2019. On August 17, 2021, the State of Illinois delayed the announcement of the winning bid from January to April 2022, reportedly at the request of developers submitting proposals.

The CAC’s pop-up exhibit featuring the winning and finalists’ designs will join the CAC’s current Helmut Jahn retrospective. Both will be open to the public through October. In July, the Chicago Architecture Center (CAC) opened its first, major limited-run exhibit, HELMUT JAHN: LIFE + ARCHITECTURE, the eagerly anticipated career retrospective of Helmut Jahn’s innovative architectural designs. The July 8 announcement of the new exhibit garnered global interest for the pathbreaking architect whose bold building designs can be found in virtually every major metropolis—from his adopted home of Chicago to Bangkok to Berlin to New York to Shanghai to Tokyo—buildings which are all part of Jahn’s enduring legacy. The exhibit, organized after Jahn’s death in May, includes numerous scale models of Jahn’s pathbreaking designs throughout his career and runs through October.

Sculpture Thompson Center Monument With Standing Beast

The pop-up exhibit is open through October. The early November public forum on the future of the Thompson Center will feature the architects of the three winning design proposals, a representative of the jury and civic leaders. For more information visit architecture.org.