Endangered architecture: Helmut Jahn’s Thompson Center

Inside of the Thompson Center, Chicago
Photo courtesy of the Chicago Reader

If you're familiar with Chicago's downtown architecture, you may recognize Helmut Jahn's curved (and colorful) James R. Thompson Center (right across from City Hall). When the building opened in 1985, people either loved it (wonderful!) or hated it (outrageous! ugly!). However, it was hard to deny that Jahn had taken International Style design and merged it with the advanced architectural tectonics of the 1980s.  Meant to carry the message of "an open government in action," Jahn's design hearkens back to the 1889 Illinois State Capitol design and also looks to Mies van der Rohe's federal buildings several blocks away, curving the building on the grid of its exterior plaza. Taking the common characteristics of International Style, Jahn uses rectilinear forms and plane surfaces, allowing for a tautness as the building curves and slopes. Giving a visually weightless appearance, and an extensively open interior, the building is visually striking.

Unfortunately, from the beginning, the building has been plagued with problems. One of the biggest issues has been with temperature control, as the single-pane glass panels make it difficult to control heating and cooling. Currently, the building has been in the news as Illinois' leaders argue over the details of its sale. While preservationists have added the building to the newest list of endangered buildings on the Landmarks Illinois list, there are others who would be more than happy to see the building be demolished. Adding an extra challenge, the building sits on top of a very busy (and large) commuter station.  It's anyone's guess right now as to what will happen to this visually striking piece of architecture.

If your curiosity about this building has been piqued, we welcome you to learn more about Helmut Jahn, Mies van der Rohe, and International Style architecture here at Central Library.  Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

International Style

Mies Van Der Rohe
Mies in America
Helmut Jahn;


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