Chicago II spaceship has landed

Here’s a question: How many elements can you remove from an iconic building before it loses its identity?

Could you get the clocks out of the iconic Marshall Field building on State Street? Cut out the big Tiffany dome from the Chicago Cultural Center? X-cut the keys from the Hancock?

How about ripping the Trump sign off Trump Tower?

“How many identifying elements can you remove from a building before it loses its soul?” was the central question posed at last week’s main screening of Nathan Eddy’s latest documentary, Starship Chicago IIat the Chicago Architecture Center.

If you’ve been by the James R. Thompson Center this year, you’ve seen the barricades blocking the main glass entrance and the signs: “Building Interior Closed for Renovation.” You can’t miss the big orange crane out front, nor the irony.

Less than 40 years after its celebratory ribbon cutting, this unique postmodern structure, destined to be the most open and public of public buildings, is neither public nor open.

At least it’s not closed for total demolition.

The wrecking ball had been a real threat for years, but especially since 2015, when Governor Bruce Rauner stood in the iconic atrium to announce he was putting the Thompson Center (originally known as the Illinois State Building) up for sale and could not. I don’t imagine any buyer would leave it standing.

No sale was made with Rauner, but in the final days of 2021, Governor JB Pritzker announced that a group led by developer Mike Reschke had won a bid to purchase and redevelop the building in a plan that would keep the state as owner of one third. and part occupant. Conservationists were relieved but curious about how well this might work with the internet- and pandemic-driven LaSalle Street corridor’s office vacancy rate heading toward 25 percent.

Then, last July, in a feat of real estate wizardry that stunned even Chicago, Pritzker revealed that Google will ultimately own the 1.2 million-square-foot Helmut Jahn-designed masterpiece, buying it from the group of Reschke after they completed a three -year renovation project. Google will use the entire building as its new headquarters; the state of Illinois will be completely out.

Most of the building’s fans rejoiced at this news: Google has pockets deep enough to be a good steward if it wants to be, and its presence on struggling LaSalle Street could spark much-needed change there. But the bait-and-switch aspect of the two announcements hung over the deal like a breath of something polite society would choose to ignore: What does it mean for the state to completely abandon a building that, more than any other, had been designed to embody the interactive relationship between a democratic government and its citizens?

In March, preservationists learned that the Thompson Center had qualified for listing on the National Register of Historic Places and that Prime Group, exercising the owner’s right of objection, had rescinded the listing. Preservation Futures, the group commissioned by Landmarks Illinois to write the nomination, noted that “a listing on the National Register does not explicitly preclude a building from being modified.” But the objection raised concerns about what those changes might be.

Helmut Jahn’s firm, now run by his son, Evan Jahn (who is interviewed in the film and attended the screening), is handling the redesign, which sounds great. But the public hasn’t seen any renderings since December 2021, before Google was pictured, and what was released then was unsettling for anyone who wants the building to retain its signature quirk. These images showed a completely whitewashed and innocuous exterior and atrium, as if someone had sucked the blood and life out of Jahn’s loud, witty, riotous, postmodern celebration of salmon and blue building.

Credit: deanna isaacs

In 2017, Eddy, a Berlin-based journalist and filmmaker (and Northwestern grad), released his original starship chicago, a shorter documentary highlighted in part by excellent interview clips from another inimitable local architect, Stanley Tigerman. Eddy was back in town for this premiere and noted that there are still a lot of open questions about the Thompson Center. Among them: What will happen to the plaza? (Sculpture by Jean Dubuffet Monument with standing beast—also known as “Snoopy in a Blender”— is scheduled to be moved.) What will be done with the CTA station? The Pedway connection? How much public access will there be? And how much character can you take out of a building before it is lost? When he first saw those early performances, Eddy told me, this is what came to mind: “We saved a building, but we didn’t save the Thompson Center.”

Stay tuned, he’s planning a Spaceship Chicago III. And in case you missed the Center for Architecture event, Starship Chicago II—packed with interviews and panoramic views of the city— streams free on through June 18.