Splash and flash: Ideas emerge for repurposing the Thompson Center

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Artwork from a proposal by Perkins & Will staffers that imagines the Thompson Center with an indoor waterpark and monumental waterfalls.
A proposal by Perkins & Will staffers imagines the Thompson Center with an indoor waterpark and monumental waterfalls. | Provided

Contestants in a design contest imagine the Helmut Jahn building with a waterpark, a rooftop farm, new civic uses and as a display of 3D LED wizardry.

How about turning the James R. Thompson Center into a waterpark resort, complete with thrilling waterfalls? Or adding a conical spire to showcase 3D LED images? Maybe its glass skin could be tinted, with occupants controlling it for their comfort.

Those were among the proposals chosen as finalists in a competition for ideas to reuse the longtime hub for state government at 100 W. Randolph St. The distinctive product of the late architect Helmut Jahn and regarded by many as landmark-worthy is an asset the state wants to sell, raising the specter of its demolition.

Seven proposals for saving the 17-story building were named finalists Tuesday in a competition sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Center and the Chicago Architectural Club. A jury of leading experts in design and preservation chose the finalists from 59 entries. A winner will be announced Sept. 14.

The entries represent “an impressively diverse set of possible uses for a re-imagined space devoted to Chicago’s civic ideals,” said Elva Rubio, co-president of the architectural club. The entries came from established professionals, young architects and students. Two students at Illinois Institute of Technology made the cut as finalists. They proposed the electronically tinted glass.

Other ideas in the finalists’ presentations, each of which got a title, included making the building’s famous atrium a public park with hanging gardens surrounded by residences, creating a prototype public school or providing civic spaces and art galleries topped by an urban farm that would use the CTA L to ship produce to food deserts.

The “Thompson-Scraper” proposal would retrofit the Thompson Center for 3D LED displays and give the building a conical spire.
Provided
The “Thompson-Scraper” proposal would retrofit the Thompson Center for 3D LED displays and give the building a conical spire.

Whether any plan has a chance at implementation rests with Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the private market. The state has not pledged to consider any preservation ideas and is motivated to get top dollar from someone who would replace it with a high-rise. But private interests, their calculations upset by the pandemic, may be reluctant to assume the risk.

The state has extended until Oct. 8 its deadline for proposals to acquire the site. It has said it wants to execute a sale by February 2022.

In 2012, architecture groups organized a similar design competition for the former Prentice Women’s Hospital in Streeterville, but Northwestern University nonetheless demolished the Bertrand Goldberg building and built a new structure in its place.

Jahn’s death in May and his desire to save the Thompson Center focused attention on the building. Its devotees call it a post-modern landmark that celebrates citizens’ interaction with government. State officials have repeatedly denigrated the building as “oversized, outdated and expensive,” citing deferred maintenance.

Thomas Heatherwick, founder of Heatherwick Studio and a member of the competition’s jury, said a main concern was “how to ‘crack open’ the ground floor of the Thompson Center and make it breathe life into the streets.

“The strongest proposals show how emphasizing the ground experience and creating a dynamism inside the building can become an attractor that brings a new chemistry to the city. There is such a great opportunity here to re-imagine a new type of public space and again showcase Chicago as a global hub for top design.”

The finalists:

• “Offset: The Vertical Loop,” by Tom Lee and Christopher Eastman of Eastman Lee Architects.

• “One Chicago School” by Jay Longo, James Michaels, Kaitlin Frankforter, Michael Quach, Abaan Zia, Mackenzie Anderson, Nicolas Waidele, Roberta Brucato and Zachary Michaliska of Solomon Cordwell Buenz.

• “Public Pool” by David Rader, Jerry Johnson, Ryan Monteleagre and Matt Zelensek of Perkins & Will.

• “Rejuvenation” by Yuqi Shao and Andrew Li, architecture students at IIT.

• “Ripple,” by Patrick Carata, Simon Cygielski, Sarah Bush, Ilyssa Kaserman, Sean King, Amparito Martinez, Marcin Rysniak, Mica Manaois, Ed Curley and Cameron Scott of Epstein.

• “There’s Something for Everyone,” by Chava Danielson, Eric Haas, Tim Jordan, Bohan Charlie Lang and Xixi Luo of DSH architecture, Los Angeles.

• “Thompson-Scraper,” by Wenyi Zhu of Zhu Wenyi Atelier at Tsinghua University, Beijing.

The sponsors will award first through third prizes. Winners will get $1,500, $1,000 or $500.

A plan by two students at the Illinois Institute of Technology would wrap the Thompson Center exterior in “smart glass” with tints controlled by occupants.
Provided
A plan by two students at the Illinois Institute of Technology would wrap the Thompson Center exterior in “smart glass” with tints controlled by occupants.

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August 24, 2021 at 02:34PM

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