Thursday, May 13, 2021

Good riddance to blue and pink elephant

In addition to being too hot, too cold, too bright and too loud, the Thompson Center clashes terribly with its neighbors, such as City Hall, seen to the right in this unretouched photo.

     Timing is crucial in journalism. The story that explodes in your hand today might be a distant pop on the horizon if lobbed tomorrow. We saw that with the Adam Toledo case, where Eric Zorn was the first off the landing craft, offering a thoughtful, dispassionate column written just before the video became public, only to be cut apart in the crossfire on Twitter. Two weeks later, Mark Brown hit the ground with a column defending the police officer that was even stronger, and whistled his way up the semi-secured beach. It's the difference between jamming your hand into a wasp's nest in June and doing so in January.  Same hand, same jam, the only difference being the key presence or absence of wasps.
     With the State of Illinois putting the Thompson Center on the block last week, on Saturday I licked my chops and set aside my English muffin expose. I've long looked askance at the salmon-and-blue monstrosity, and began whetting my knife and hacking the topic into tasty chunks, a process I completed Sunday morning, turning it in about 10 a.m. with a self-satisfied smirk.  I felt a little frisson of guilt for vivisecting the man along with his work, but Helmut Jahn is a big boy, I thought. He could take it. 
    Actually, he couldn't. Not anymore. My editor, who begins her days scanning the actual news, replied, in essence. "Ummm, maybe you should factor in that Jahn died yesterday afternoon in a bike accident."
     Ah. Did not know that. No column was ever yanked back quicker or with more gratitude. I took a breath, spun around 180 degrees, and wrote the tribute that ran in Monday's paper—also sincere, working in some of the same criticisms, but with the head-bowed gravity the moment demanded. If you haven't read that, do so, and compare the tone with this, the original column that got yanked back; now, 96 hours later, I feel semi-comfortable sharing it here, after a respectful interval and in the more limited confines of the blog, without the imprimatur of the paper. 
     Besides, with Jahn's death throwing fuel on the dying embers of efforts to save the Thompson Center—I'm not sure how that changes anything—it is even more timely to outline the case for taking it down and putting a proper building in its place.  

     This is unsettling. The Thompson Center, that is. Not because it is for sale and probably will be torn down. Good riddance to bad design.
     A few murmurs of dissent from sentimentalists. The Thompson Center is architecturally redundant, since its model, the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, whose 22-story lobby ... choosing my words carefully...inspired Helmut Jahn to create his star-crossed homage, is right where it has been since 1967 and not going anywhere.. No need to grieve over a knock-off when the original still stands.
     The hunchbacked beast of a building never fell from favor, since it was one of those rare structures despised from the start.
     “It’s obscene,” Chicago architect Harry Weese said at its 1985 unveiling. “It won’t even make a beautiful ruin.”
     True that. But it did make a quick one. Within a year, its shoddy outdoor pillars, obviously not intended to be touched by human hands, were already “dented, scraped and smudged.”
     Even the workmen who built the Thompson Center hated the thing. “This is an ugly building” one scrawled in graffiti, 17 stories up.
     So the building going bye-bye isn’t what irks me. That’s a good thing. What bothers me is that its demise will mean that my career has bracketed the building. You start to feel old when you outlast public buildings, particularly one 25 years younger than yourself. When the State of Illinois Center, as it was originally called, was built, I was a hustling young reporter. One of the few people who actually gazed upon the Ice Cube—prominent among the SOIC’s raft of design flaws was this Rube Goldberg system that formed ice at night, when the electricity rates are low, and then blew air over the ice, cooling the building. In theory.
     In unforgiving reality, the contraption never worked, particularly since the glass curtain wall served as a greenhouse—to Jahn’s surprise, apparently, though how he managed to fail to consider that blazing object in the sky is a mystery. Ignoring the sun, like ignoring gravity, is not the hallmark of great architecture. There was talk of special glass that was supposed to be installed but proved too costly and was jettisoned. The heat overwhelmed the cooling system, requiring them to both cover the inferior glass with jury-rigged anti-sun sheeting and retrofit in a normal air conditioner. And that was only the beginning. I could fill the column with problems. You couldn’t turn off the lights—programmed by computers, supposedly “energy-efficient,” they left tenants who wanted to dim their offices, say to project slides, to tape black paper over the light fixtures.
     To be fair, there was unquestionable pride in the early years. I would march visitors into the SOIC, shout “Tah-dah!” and we’d just stand there, open-mouthed, watching the glass elevators go up and down—yet another flaw, since so many tourists would jam the elevators that employees couldn’t get to work. And of course, we had the luxury of gawping then leaving. “Scandalously short on user comfort,” is how Tribune architecture critic Paul Gapp politely put it. Too hot, too cold, too loud. When the frequent public events were going on below, one state employee said it “sounded like a basketball game was going on outside my office,”
     And that was before the state, in a penny-wise-pound-foolish public display of false economy, allowed the whole thing to decay and deteriorate into a grubby, crumbling mess, so bad that—and I saw this with my own eyes—the carpet in the governor’s office was repaired with duct tape. As were the broken tiles in the plaza outside. When Gov. Pritzker said it would take $375 million just to clean and repair the place, nobody even blinked at the figure. Sounds right.
     There is one argument for its preservation that I feel duty-bound to float. You could view the Thompson Center as a crime scene, making the building itself evidence. Before the wrecking ball takes the Thompson Center down, we could have the show trial right there in the yawning lobby, the way its namesake held public hearings there for accused rapist Gary Dotson (to this day the most memorable moment in the buildings 36 year history, itself reason aplenty to take it down). Think of the drama, setting up a courtroom where the grids of cheap sunglasses and chola hats are usually on sale, next to the big static displays from the DMV and the Treasurer’s Office. There would be Helmut Jahn in the dock, scowling fiercely, in chains. After the evidence is provided, and inevitable guilt concluded, I would feel comfortable arguing for mitigation. Yes, Jahn was 40 when it was unveiled, but that’s babyhood for architects. We could write it off as youthful indiscretion, committed at a time when big hair and padded shoulders eroded our aesthetic reason. The Thompson Center atrocity is mitigated by Jahn’s subsequent good works: Terminal One at O’Hare, the Mansueto Library at University of Chicago. A simple apology would do. Not that this is possible—Jahn has already cheekily written a treatise explaining how he would like to retrofit, yet again, the disaster he inflicted on the city.
     Here’s a thought. If you design a building whose workers had to set up fans and umbrellas seeking relief from the sun cruelly blazing through the giant magnifying glass you put over their heads, at least have the dignity to just shut up and let exasperated Chicagoans finally give your folly the bum’s rush it deserves.


  1. Great column as always. But also amazing how Mr. Jahn, who did many great things just could never come around to saying, "Just wasn't one of my best works, let's get rid of it". Like a Captain on a sinking ship thinking everything is going to be alright. Wait till they start talking it down, that will make you feel old, especially when it starts happening. Too bad Mr. Jahn didn't live longer, he could have been the guy in the crane to take the ceremoniously first whack at it.

  2. It seems to me that Mr Jahn forgot one of the primary tennants of architecture when he designed this edifice.

    Form follows function in the immortal words of Louis Sullivan.

    Appealing is subjective, useful not so much. The flaws that you point out are some of many that have plagued this structure since it's construction.

    Ordinarily I would say that the owners of a building can do whatever they want it's not my money but in this case it is it's all of our money. Attempts to landmark this structure seem ridiculous as you point out it's not as old as you or me and Lacks greatness.

    Tearing it down and building something new doesn't guarantee that will get a more appealing addition to our skyline but lots of buildings are ugly hopefully the next one functions properly and meets the needs of its occupants and users.

  3. We musn't forget that this stunningly ugly (and inefficient) building was the submitted as part of a design contest for the state of Illinois, and was rejected by the selection committee, which was duly overruled by James Thompson - who by himself chose the monstrosity to be built. Thompson, who fancied himself an expert in design, wanted a building that made a statement. In a manner he got what he wished for.

  4. Yes, would have been a little rude to run this the day after the guy died.


  5. Hopefully the sculpture outside will suffer a similar ignominious fate.

    1. What an uncharacteristically cruel dismissal of "Snoopy in a Blender." : )

    2. I don’t know much about art, but...I can’t bear to see a cartoon dog suffer.

  6. Might be worth mentioning that it wasn't the architect who value-engineered the double glazing, the extruded aluminum rails, the HVAC system. Nearly all the building's flaws are due to the state Capital Development Board, not the architect.

  7. Good move re the column, given events. Fortunately, there's still time to rename the place the Jean Baptiste Point du Sable Big Jim Thompson State of Illinois Building -- and upgrade the carpeting.

  8. I admire Mr. Jahn for riding his bicycle into his eighties.

  9. The owners of the closed Sherman House offered to construct a different Jahn designed building and lease it to the state at what turned out to be half the cost. Big Jim turned it down, probably in large part so his pals would get the construction contracts.

  10. One can call your brilliant photo an example of terrible clashing, or of a remarkably demonstrative juxtaposition. I've always loved that photo, and I'm not generally a fan of postmodernism. If Chicago featured only uninterrupted blocks of Corinthian columns, it wouldn't be the architectural wonder that it is.

    But, to each her or his own opinion. Though I'd like to see the Thompson Center saved and repurposed in some imaginative way, I certainly realize that it served many of its tenants poorly.

    Primarily, I'm just interested to see that this particular topic finds people I respect lining up on both sides, which is not always the case these days. Case in point: Lee Bey's piece in the S-T the other day.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.