Saturday, January 16, 2016

White Elephant

The great pop idol David Bowie died this week and social media has been abuzz with tributes, memories and laudatory comments about him. That is except for one friend who posted on her Facebook page that she never liked the dead rocker or his music.

I felt a little like her a couple months ago when it was announced that Illinois governor Bruce Rauner was planning to sell the James R. Thompson Center. a move some believe signals doom for Helmut Jahn's bombastic government building , for thirty years the tangible symbol of the State of Illinois in the center of its largest and most important city.

The news caused a tremendous uproar among the city's preservation community who see the Thompson Center as an important architectural landmark in the city.

Swimming upstream against the current, like my friend the David Bowie detractor, I had to admit that from day one, I never much liked the building. It's not that I objected it appearing to have been dropped into the cityscape from outer space, sticking out like a sore thumb in Chicago's Loop which was and still is dominated by architectural boxes. I wasn't too upset that the State of Illinois Building as it was known when it was built, took the place of the old Sherman House Hotel where I spent many happy times with my grandparents at what I once considered the classiest restaurant in the world, The Well of the Sea. And it didn't really bother me that the building's design with its enormous open atrium and bird cage elevators, trumpeted as being unique and original, actually parroted the work of John Portman, the famous neo-futuristic designer of hotels in the decade before the Thompson Center was built. Well all those things did cross my mind but...

One of the several thousand handrail joints
 in the James R. Thompson Center.
Today the edges and corners of the metal rails
are rounded off, sparing the hands of the
tens of thousands of people who use them
every day.
What really bothered me was the complete lack of attention to detail in a building that was first and foremost a grandiose statement on the part of its architect and the governor of Illinois who commissioned it, for whom it is currently named. Much has been written about the building's notorious heating, ventilation and air conditioning problems which resulted in a complete overhaul of the HVAC system shortly after it was built. But the detail that pissed me off above all was the design and execution of the sheet metal hand rails that line the terraced balconies and stairways. At each joint, instead of the pieces coming together smoothly, there was a gap of about one half an inch, leaving exposed metal edges. When the building was new, it never occurred to Jahn or the staff working under him to sand down those edges. Consequently, anyone who held onto the rails as they used the stairs or walked along the balconies, cut their hands bloody (as I did), on the sharp exposed corners and edges of the sheet metal.

I suppose the very real blood letting of visitors gave a new meaning to the term "brutalist architecture". Another brutal aspect of the building to my eyes anyway was its color theme which juxtaposed two starkly contrasting colors, blue and red. As the eye focuses slightly different on each color, the effect of the two colors side by side meant the eyes were continually adjusting to each color, producing a dizzying effect which only accentuated the enormous atrium, the death defying heights as viewed from the terraced balconies of the higher floors, and the kaleidoscopic design of the terrazzo floor below. Thirty years earlier, Alfred Hitchcock may have pre-visualized the building when he made his great film Vertigo.

This was of course no accident, I believe that Jahn intended the building to be the architectural equivalent of an amusement park ride, terrifying and wonderful at the same time.

Looking up into the cavernous atrium of the Thompson Center,
a view a friend once compared to the view from inside
a salt shaker.
Did I say wonderful? Well yes, the building was not without its merits. First and foremost, it was not boring, there was nothing anywhere quite like it. For all its flaws, the Thompson Center was always a featured highlight on my tours of the Loop. It was impossible to be indifferent about the TC, you either loved it or hated it.

These days, even though I find myself inside the building quite often, I hadn't given it much thought until the governor made his announcement. Truth is, after all these years, it has settled on me. Like the old afghan on your couch, I came to appreciate it for its comfort and familiarity despite the ugliness, which was exacerbated by neglect over the years. Time had worn off its edges; the garish colors of the walls faded and even the sharp edges of the hand rails had long ago been sanded down. Despite that, or maybe because of it, the building developed something it never had before, charm. Dare I say, in its decrepitude, the Thompson Center became cozy, which is probably why Helmut Jahn hasn't been very outspoken in defense of saving his building.

A couple months ago I had lunch with a friend at the Thompson Center food court on the lower level, perhaps at the exact site where the Well of the Sea once stood. In the central area of the ground floor, a political rally was going on emceed by Jesse White, the Illinois Secretary of State. As my friend and I were about to dine on our Panda Express Mandarin orange chicken and Szechuan beef, a color guard entered the space followed by a girl belting out the Star Spangled Banner. Feeling uncomfortable chowing down on Chinese fast food during the strains of our national anthem, we grudgingly stood up as did most of the diners around us. As the girl finished singing, we sat back down and settled into a rather serious conversation, trying best as we could to ignore the goings on around us. It was impossible. At the height of our seriousness, in walked a twelve piece Mariachi band, belting out an old Jalisco standard as loud as they could. We felt like we were in an episode of Seinfeld.

Neither of us could be upset however, in short, this brief Dada moment personified the very essence of the urban experience.

The best part of the Thompson Center is all the open space devoted to the public; like it or not, pure and simple, this is our building. Walk in during the week and there is always some kind of exhibit set up on the main floor attracting scores of people representing the diversity of the city of Chicago. It could be an exhibition touting a new book on a local subject, a benefit for some noble cause, or a flea market. These exhibits seldom are professionally constructed, often they're hastily put together, resembling an elementary school book fair. What the exhibits lack in style and grace, they more than make up in the human touch. The Thompson Center is perhaps to Chicago what the agora was to the ancient Athenians, the great public gathering space in the heart of the city. One can almost imagine two citizens of Athens, Plato and Aristotle perhaps, being interrupted mid-conversation in the agora by a 400 BC Greek version of a Mariachi band.

The Thompson Center is no longer as public as it was intended. You could once take an elevator to the top of the building as my ex-wife and I did the day it opened. From there if you chose, you could make your way down through the building one floor at a time either by escalator or by the stairs with those dreaded hand rails. The terraced balconies serve as hallways, connecting the government offices which have no walls sealing them off from the balconies and the atrium. Every noise coming from the public space below reverberates through the building and into the offices. Another friend who worked in the building for a time had his work interrupted twice by the crash of a person falling to his or her death after jumping off one of those balconies.

From what I understand, most of the employees in those offices understandably hate the distractions and lack of privacy, but the design is very symbolic of the idea of the openness of government, a concept that was perhaps unique to the moment in time that the Thompson Center was built.

Sadly, today, unless you have the proper credentials, you can no longer roam through the entire building, thanks to Mr. bin Laden and his suicidal charges. But what the September 11 terrorists couldn't take away was the feeling of openness in this particular building. Restrictions notwithstanding, the Thompson Center remains the most publicly open interior space in Chicago, with its millions of cubic feet devoted to the atrium, which through the ample use of glass in the exterior walls, provides a stunning view of the city outside.

If Governor Rauner gets his way, all that space which now belongs to us, will be gone. The sad thing is that Chicago's Loop is losing its public space at an alarming rate. Around the time of the announcement that the TC might be sold, the company that owns for former Marshall Field State Street store two blocks away, announced that it plans to rethink the current Macys, and most likely will drastically reduce the public area of what in my opinion is one of Chicago's greatest public spaces, second only perhaps to the Cultural Center. What once was a neighborhood of infinite interest to the general public, the Loop is fast becoming a neighborhood of walls and closed doors, sealing off private offices and residences.

The Thompson Center was considered the first twenty first century building in Chicago. Now that it actually is the twenty first century, we don't build over the top buildings like it anymore. Given the desperate financial state of the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois, Governor Rauner's plan to sell the TC may well be fiscally prudent, but not without a price.

The speculation is that what made the Thompson Center such a remarkable public space, most likely will lead to its downfall. If the building is sold to a private concern, most likely all that open space will be deemed very expensive wasted space. By itself the building would probably be considered a white elephant to any private developer as realistic adaptive reuse of such a structure would be quite formidable. On the other hand, demolition would be relatively inexpensive as most of the cubic feet comprising the building consists of glass and air. Unfortunately the writing is on the wall for the Thompson Center and at the moment it doesn't look very good.

Despite its flaws, the loss of the Thompson Center would be nothing less than a crushing blow to the very meaning of the Loop as the vital heart of this city. It's possible loss, combined with the other losses we've experienced bring us closer to the day when the Loop will be virtually indistinguishable from the downtowns of almost any other big American city.

Perhaps we don't care. 
And if that's the case, perhaps we'll get what we deserve.

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