In an architecture awards jury session, the Near North Apartments were under consideration. The structure was vintage Helmut Jahn, a half-baguette of steel capped with an expanse of glass. Although it was intended for people struggling with homelessness, the most ready comparison it invited was to an Airstream trailer—symbol of American abundance, promise of limitless mobility, fantasy of a home everlasting.
In mounting a late-career comeback, Jahn returned to the gestures that made him a celebrity decades earlier. His buildings are expressive, smooth, assured, a little sleazy. A handsome chiller plant at the University of Chicago that exposes the workings of its bright machinery. A dormitory at IIT that snugs up to elevated train tracks. Supportive housing luminous with optimism. In the 1980s, the cascading glass of Jahn’s proposed addition to the Chicago Board of Trade Building— a caricature of a cash register—was a punky dare, a challenge to institutional respectability. But in the intervening decades the world caught up. Once provocative, Jahn’s architecture had become valedictory.
Seated at a large rectangle of tables inside the hallowed Santa Fe building where Daniel Burnham drafted the 1909 Plan of Chicago, jurors carefully considered the merits and flaws of the Near North Apartments. At last, the chairperson of the jury spoke up. “Meh,” said Stanley Tigerman and flashed an impish grin. “It’s just Helmut ripping off Helmut.”
Tigerman meant that as a compliment, in his own way, for Jahn is worth imitating.
Like Jahn, I came to the United States as a young immigrant. I viscerally understand his fascination with the kitsch of our adopted land: the bluster of its skyscrapers, the squalor of its suburbs, the gaudiness of its consumption, the rush of its highways. For Jahn this topography offers an inexhaustible source of vernacular references. In the James R. Thompson Center, the pivotal commission of his career, he deploys American tropes with a Nabokovian skill. The building’s regimented façade nods to the colonnade of the neoclassical City Hall directly across the street. Shaded lampposts hint at the intimacy of a small-town square. The volume of the central atrium is an homage to rotundas found in nineteenth-century government buildings. Crowning the atrium, a glass nipple sliced on a diagonal is meant to recall a statehouse cupola. Offices of government bureaucrats are left exposed to sunlight and scrutiny, so as to literalize the ideals of a people’s democracy. And the infamous palette of salmon pink, pearlescent white, and variegated pale-blue glass? The kitschiest of kitsch, of course: broad stripes and bright stars of our banner, streaming gallantly—if you squint at it in the right light.
Yet the most heavy-handed reference—and that which makes the building transcend the sum of its parts—is one that gets overlooked in critiques of the Thompson Center. The Thompson Center is a “shopping mall where government happens,” says Jonathan Solomon. The main trope for the building is retail, the over-the-counter familiarity between citizens and civil servants. With Elizabeth Blasius, his partner in Preservation Futures, Solomon has conducted tours of the Thompson Center and writes extensively about its history. But his acquaintance with it dates to the Thompson Center’s earliest days.
“For a while, it was a beacon in a pretty dreary landscape of business activity” in the Loop, Solomon says. His mother worked for the state and, as a teenager, he roamed the building, running up and down the improbably suspended stairs and raiding supply closets for Post-It notes whose pastel colors complemented the scheme of the building. Revolutionary for its time, the Thompson Center mashed up transit, commerce, entertainment and government in a single light-filled volume. “It’s a government building on top of a mall,” he repeats.
What more can be said about the Thompson Center that has not already been said by the legions of its champions and its detractors? That it is a masterpiece, a tour de force of postmodernism? That it is an eyesore out of character with its urban context? That it is monumental in a city resplendent with monuments? That it is a monstrosity? That tearing it down robs Chicago of an internationally renowned landmark? That tearing it down rids Chicago—and the patient taxpayers of Illinois—of a leaking liability? That it is a pioneering experiment in multi-use development? That it squanders a prime development opportunity? That it is sublimely beautiful? That it is sublimely ugly?
That it currently faces the likely prospect of demolition shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Chicago’s creation myth. The city’s long tradition of preserving its architectural legacy is second only to that of giddily dismantling it. These are mutually constitutive urges, twinned from birth. For to build something worth preserving, one must first tear down whatever is already there. Chicago’s self-mythologizing begins in the flames that destroyed the city so that it may rise again.
What does it feel like to be Helmut Jahn, a lion, a loner, an octogenarian who still reports to work every day, pandemic be damned; whose letterhead bears his name in sports car-red bold all-caps; who dreams skyscrapers ever taller, ever further; who looks out, from the windows of his Loop office at the building that made his reputation and that, in these gentle valedictory years of an enviable life, may soon implode—burning on reentry from a decades-long voyage in outer space? Or, more likely, be bulldozed without much ceremony—at an estimated cost of $20 to $150 million—under cover of a construction scrim printed with platitudes about a brighter, blander future? What does it feel like to command a view of the demolition crews, busy behind barricades, from the offices of a firm whose fate is as precarious as that of the Thompson Center?
Jahn is at his desk, silhouetted against north-facing windows. In the background are models, pinned-up drawings, a few staffers. He doesn’t believe in working from home. He believes in working, period. So, I ask, what does it feel like to be Helmut Jahn? “If someone bought this for enough money and tore it down, I don’t know what I would do.” Long pause. “I wouldn’t shoot him.” Longer pause. “But I’d feel like it.”
“There are a lot of Chicago landmarks that have gone through this,” Blasius says. Reliance Building, the delicate jewel of State Street: “it was part of proposed slum clearance.” The Chicago Athletic Association, an improvisation on Venetian Gothic: “the building kind of sat vacant for a while.” Blasius sweeps her arm. “This building.” Her office is inside the Monadnock, a masonry mountain and textbook example of the Chicago School. The Monadnock was spared; it was among the first historic buildings eligible for special protections under a Chicago Landmark designation. So were the Reliance, the Athletic Association and the Cultural Center. Others were less lucky.
Blasius notes the irony that an earlier layer of Chicago’s past was destroyed in the name of urban renewal—the very political philosophy that produced the Thompson Center. “People tend to be surprised that the site had buildings on it. There were people who were advocating that those buildings be retained.” Like all powerful mythologies, Chicago’s forms an infinite loop. “There was a previous effort to save the buildings that the Thompson Building replaced.”
The ostensible reason for the sale of the Thompson Center is the burden it represents for the State of Illinois. Maintaining it as a public space is costly. Its grandest gesture—a fundamental publicness—is also its damning financial flaw. Here, the tedium of driver’s license renewals, paying state taxes, or applying for arts grants is elevated to a spectacle, conducted in a larger-than-life set piece. Illinoisans and visitors are welcome to enter the building without any obligation to make a purchase or otherwise engage in business. The Thompson Center is as accessible as it gets.
“They’ve made this building an inaccessible monster,” Jahn says. The atrium is closed after business hours and on weekends. Post-9/11 security checkpoints prevent circulation between floors. Worn thin, finishes and furnishings are uninviting. Makeshift barricades and pylons gridlock pedestrian traffic in the corridors around the Department of Motor Vehicles.
For Iker Gil, who publishes the influential design journal MAS Context, the Thompson Center’s public ideals have been betrayed by lack of care. “You can’t blame architecture for deferred maintenance.” Gil takes international visitors to experience the architecture—frayed chairs, smelly food court and all—as part of his “greatest hits tour.”
“If we call ourselves the mecca of architecture, you have to support it,” Gil says. This is especially true for civic structures built on a promise of publicness. “Any public building is spending public dollars. So you should demand the best from that.” The people of Illinois will no longer own the site or the building once the sale is complete. Yet, echoing Jahn, Gil believes that any redevelopment scheme must be based on restoring publicness. “Don’t project onto the architecture the maintenance issues,” he says, “the not-giving-a-fuck about the building.”
In the early aughts I rented an apartment in a workman’s cottage in Pilsen. It had uneven floors and a skylight, installed by a landlord eager to modernize the unit, that let in both sunshine and rain. As a gift, a friend who trained as an architectural historian helped me compile the history of the cottage. Based on fire-insurance maps, building permits and census records, we traced births and basements, marriages and migrations, kitchen additions and tax abatements. Immigrants from Bavaria. A single room. Irish laborers trailed a decade later by their kinsfolk. A second floor, a second family. A blank on the 1930 census: “Do you own a radio set?” The war. Female head of household. A property transfer. Central American owners, settled, solid, industrious. And at the end of history, me.
If I were to become famous—a statesman, say, or Instagram influencer—and my humble cottage ascended to preservation, to what condition should it be restored? Pre-radio or post? With cracked skylight or without? Would future preservationists keep the patterns left on vinyl siding by occasional garbage fires or strip it to reveal original red brick underneath? Would they encase my former residence in glass or let Chicago winters patinate it? Would they welcome another garbage fire and another and another, in summer?
“This is where the area of historic preservation gets tricky and sticky.” At Landmarks Illinois, Lisa DiChiera has spent more than twenty years leading advocacy campaigns to save historic buildings. But the Thompson Center poses a novel challenge. The primary question of historic preservation may be whether a structure is worthy of being saved. But the very next question, and many that follow, are about which particular combination of traits and features constitute its value. In other words, what makes the Thompson Center the Thompson Center?
Redeveloping the site is costly and complicated under any circumstances, whether or not the Jahn-designed structure remains in place. “My ideal scenario would be,” DiChiera tells me, “that a developer could come in”—one sympathetic to the existing Thompson Center. In this scenario, a significant incentive is a tax credit, totaling twenty percent of construction costs, afforded to the developer through listing the building on the National Register of Historic Places. Combined with other tax breaks provided by county and city entities, historic protection can make a private development feasible. “The nomination is in the hopper right now. It’s moving along; it’s supposed to be on the agenda, we’re hoping, in June.” First, the nomination must clear a state-level commission before being approved by the National Park Service. (Solomon and Blasius, who drafted the nomination, tell me that if the Thompson Center gets designated, it will mark a first for postmodern buildings in Chicago.)
The designation does not automatically guarantee protection. Further, to realize the potential of the prime site—and to generate the cash necessary to rehabilitate the Thompson Center—a private developer will most likely need to build upward. But any new construction would jeopardize the National Register designation and consequently prevent the use of tax credits. DiChiera says that the stringent requirements for preservation can have the perverse effect of destroying that which they mean to protect. Changing the flow of the site or inserting a new tower may be “too radical of a change.” Just how much of a change is too much depends on the opinion of state and federal authorities. “Where we still don’t have a clear understanding is if a compromise development would qualify a developer to use historic preservation credits.”
For the Thompson Center to survive, DiChiera has argued, preservationists in power need to respond with flexibility. To these colleagues, she addresses two pieces of advice. First: “We have to get to the point of understanding that the rules have to be bent so that developers have the ability to, you know, invest in these places.” And second: “Get real.”
In our conversation, Jahn unfolded two alternatives to demolition—each in the spirit of “compromise development”— one modest, the other radical. By his side was Phil Castillo, who serves as the administrative head of the JAHN firm. Jahn is astute about real estate and has cultivated the grudging respect, and trust, of developers. Both options assume, as an inevitability, the transfer of the property from the state to a private entity. In polished slides and renderings, Castillo and Jahn showed possible futures for the site. Each was dutifully accompanied by floor plans color-coded by the potential program: hotel rooms here, apartments there, amenities in back, retail in front. Elaborate charts collated zoning requirements and returns on investment. The modest option, which Jahn has nicknamed “Inside Out,” proposes leaving the original structure substantially intact, aside from opening up the interior atrium fully to the public plaza to encourage a seamless flow from the indoors to the outdoors. The ground level would transform into year-round public space. Retail, offices, hotel and apartments would occupy the upper floors where sunlight once shone brightly upon the State apparatus. “Inside Out,” Jahn says, is the more sensible scheme given the post-pandemic vagaries of office-space demand.
The radical alternative, he says, was initiated by an interested developer. He drafted it “at a time when tech companies were looking for all that space.” The concept was prepared by Jahn and promoted by Landmarks Illinois, which has been a vocal advocate in favor of preservation. It is a hybrid, if not exactly a compromise, between honoring the existing structure and making room for new highrise construction. The concept envisions inserting a tower on the corner of the site, connected to the Thompson Center and stacked 109 floors tall with a mix of commercial and residential uses. The former government building would, in this case, be opened up to retail, amenities, and—as in the former alternative—abundant public space connected to the outdoor plaza.
This scenario more than doubles the square footage on the site to over two million, triggering a zoning change. In March, Alderman Brendan Reilly proposed upzoning the block to DC-16, a classification that permits high-rise mixed-use buildings and removes height restrictions. DC-16 lets a developer benefit from new construction while reinvesting in the legacy structure, as Jahn’s second alternative suggests. But zoning is agnostic when it comes to design merit and historic value. While it may plausibly attract sympathetic development, DC-16 can also pave the way for demolition. Taking advantage of the zoning code, an unprincipled new owner would be able to build from scratch a new, two-million-square-foot highrise.
Without enthusiasm, Castillo and Jahn introduced a surprise third option that would demolish the Thompson Center and replace it with a conical skyscraper. At 2,000 feet, the super-tall design casts a long shadow over the Willis Tower. The cone, which would become Chicago’s tallest building, seemed like a perfunctory study destined to stand among the anonymity of a place like Dubai, Astana or Kuala Lumpur. The ghost of the Thompson Center went unmentioned.
The story of postmodern architecture can’t be told without understanding what came before—the hegemony of institutional modernism that, to this day, supplies the grammar of big-ticket corporate and civic architecture. In Chicago, the stark composition of the Federal Plaza buildings typify the style. Designed by Mies van der Rohe, they are postwar architecture par excellence: rigorous, restrained, rectilinear. Yet modernism was itself a reaction to the architecture of its own recent past, substituting for the anachronisms of public buildings lushly decorated with vestiges of the Victorian era or allusions to classical motifs the machine precision of an infinitely reproducible grid. “It goes in cycles,” Jonathan Solomon reminds me. After fifty years or so, a historic style rises in esteem, and in value.
Dingy. Leaky. The Portland Municipal Services Building in Portland, Oregon, a warren of city government offices, has been maligned as the world’s tallest basement. Designed by the iconoclastic Michael Graves, the Portland Center, as it is known, opened in 1982 to wonder and vitriol. Its small windows made the interior feel dark and inhospitable; Graves’ appropriation of classical flourishes such as friezes and pilasters were mocked. The Portland Center faced demolition as costs of deferred maintenance added up. Following a contentious public debate over its fenestration, its leaks, and its symbolic value, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is undergoing a renovation on the strength of a $195 million reinvestment. Architectural critics now call it a defining moment of the postmodern movement in the United States.
To be built, postmodern civic buildings like the Portland Center had to overcome two lines of resistance. First, they were met with distaste by a critical establishment that saw their fanciful and often irreverent stylistic experimentation as a violation of modernist strictures. Second, back-to-the-city advocates who had begun to recolonize urban neighborhoods were hostile to a scale of development that directly contradicted the fine-grained postulates of Jane Jacobs. Postmodern architecture, with its mixture of middlebrow historicism and a penchant for grand statements, managed to simultaneously offend both the high tastes of the curatoriat and the populist sensibilities of self-styled urban pioneers.
Monstrous. Ugly. Boston’s 1968 City Hall served as the city’s cartoon villain. A jumble of concrete masses surrounded by a barren plaza dubbed “the brick desert,” it had been narrated time and again as a cautionary tale of the failures of urban renewal. In “Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston,” Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo and Chris Grimley revisit the era of urban renewal and the architecture it produced. The book helped make the civic architecture of brutalism a cause célèbre, notably at a time when the Trump administration issued a mandate to “make federal architecture beautiful again” and explicitly rejected the sculptural and symbolic ideas f styles beyond milquetoast classicism. “Heroic” first emerged as a response to a past Boston administration that floated the idea of moving the seat of municipal government from the unloved City Hall. While it began as “an argument for preservation,” Grimley tells me, the book proceeded along a broader arc. “It’s less about buildings but reimagining the history of urban renewal.” Though its impacts on the fabric of local neighborhoods are generally considered devastating, urban renewal manifested a civic ideal. Between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s, governments at the federal, state and municipal levels deployed public commissions to infuse capital and energy into the urban core. City centers, depleted in the wake of white flight and hollowed by suburban malls, were in a vegetative state. Public buildings attempted to shock them back into a heartbeat. These risky—and indeed heroic—measures, Grimley says, are “lost in the vehemence in Jane Jacobites.” Today, rollerbladers happily weave past a beer garden in the brick desert. It is home to official celebrations and popular entertainments. Like the plaza, City Hall, too, is in the final phases of a major update that has secured its future.
Breathtaking. Impudent. Outrageous. Idiosyncratic. Since Governor James R. Thompson pushed for the construction of what was then called the State of Illinois Building, it has had to defend its existence against critics like Paul Gapp, whose Tribune review set the template for subsequent coverage. “This was a big glamorous State project initiated by a Republican governor,” Elizabeth Blasius says. “If you look at the critique that was published leading up to its opening, you’ll see there’s critique of spending—it is seen as government overspending—and critique of its aesthetics. And some critique of its functionality.”
The building was a risk for Thompson, who, Jahn says, gave him a personal phone number and an invitation to call should the design team run into a problem. Years later, Jahn saw Thompson, now retired, after the former governor gave a speech at a private club. At a reception afterwards, Thompson pulled Jahn aside. “The only thing I regret,” he said about his long career in public service, “is that I can’t take the building with me.”
And it was a risk for Jahn, a young architect who trained at Mies van der Rohe’s IIT and whose previous work advanced the dominant modernist idiom. Before the Thompson Center, Chicago was a modernist town. After, says Solomon, “there was not another Miesian commission.” Before, Jahn enjoyed a local reputation. After, he was internationally known, with both envy and derision, as Flash Gordon—a handsome comic-book space traveler bound on a mission to Mars.
“I always take risks. I’ve always been into fast cars and fast boats.” Jahn’s racing yacht has won trophies across the globe. “Gusts of forty, fifty knots. You can barely stand.” At that velocity, sails turn into wings. Winds lift the boat’s hull above water so that it surfs, held between the surface and the farthest reaches of the universe. In sports-car-red bold all-caps, the boat’s name glistens in the spray: “Flash Gordon.”
Helmut Jahn’s and Jim Thompson’s children were about the same age when the State of Illinois building opened its doors in 1985. The two kindergartners drew the building, capturing its barrel-like shape and lopsided cupola. The memory delights Jahn. He knew the moment he saw the drawings that the building was a success.
But times change. In the past year, Mars has come within reach and Jahn reluctantly sold his boat. The Thompson Center sits mostly vacant, closed to the public as it awaits its next mission. Among the images he showed me is a picture his granddaughter made. It’s all there in broad strokes: the barrel, the cupola. Markers, thankfully, are not instruments of subtlety. Her Thompson Center is clad in vibrant colors: primary red, white and blue.