Thursday, December 09, 2010

Post Modern Peel: Chiclets and Stripper Poles at Helmut Jahn's Thompson Center

`Back in 1985, this is how it started . . .
photograph: Mary Ann Sullivan (click images for larger view)
Helmut Jahn's post-modernist State of Illinois Building, now the James R. Thompson Center, took up most of a full city block, with pedestrian arcades along three sides.  Shielding the arcades from the street was an applique of granite panels mounted on perimeter columns, which continued past where the building ended, in a series of free-standing shafts supporting the same granite panels that diminished in height as they moved to the corner of Clark and Randolph, where a column was missing, providing both an abstracted sense of enclosure and inferred entrance to the large plaza fronting the building.
Flash forward a quarter century.  As we reported, in September of 2009,   metallic grids of steel strapping began to bind the pole-mounted granite panels into place.  It was the prelude to stripping away every last granite panel, which officials feared were coming loose from their moorings, threatening to smash passersby into personal injury lawyer dust.
At the time, the talk was about working with the Illinois History Preservation Agency, "investigating replacement materials (foreign granite vs. domestic granite vs. artificial stone) to determine the best match with original, while considering green footprint, budget, historic preservation regulations, etc.", with the plan being to begin installing replacement panels this past June.
That didn't quite work out.  Instead, along the sides of the building, itself, we were left with only the jagged metal support structure for the granite, never intended for public display.   It was like looking into a mouthful of metal spikes waiting in vain for their crowns.

Now, just in time for Christmas, we have our solution.  The metal supports, as promised, have been removed, and in their place, we have a support structure covered in what looks like a kind of wallboard . . . .
. . . over which a white, vinyl-like material has been stretched.
The materials may be abject, irregular and not especially durable, but from the distance of the sidewalk, the result is not entirely displeasing.  The new white, chiclet-like hem almost seem to relate  from the original white panes of glass.
It's really as if the layer of Post Modernism has been peeled away from the Thompson Center - along with the protection for the arcades - with the removal of that vaguely classical faux wall of stone.  What's left is a much more straightforward expression of a steel and glass skyscraper.

It works best, I think, at the LaSalle Street entrance.  With the previous accretion of stone gone (there was a small transparent breach at the keystone, which you can see here) and the horizontal top beam exposed, it becomes a much clearer cutout of the curtain wall above,  The flagpoles coming through the now open stubs, however, look a bit like toothpicks jammed into cubes of port wine cheese.
What doesn't work as well are the now free-standing columns in the plaza.  On the plus side, it's more open and porous, leaving unimpeded the visual backdrop of the buildings around it.  The columns themselves, however have become almost a surreal collection of random poles.
Things change.


Marc Lichtenstein said...

it's still one of the ugliest buildings i have ever seen

micanichi said...

A fitting commentary for that phase of architectural history. I hope the red and blue are the next to go.

Anonymous said...

Gosh. Maybe they could remove the cornice and create a parapet. That would be oh so modern and rewarding. Sorry-could not resist.

Anonymous said...

While it is interesting to consider the temporary cladding as a revision to the original design, it is not. It is only there for a short time until the original design can be properly restored.

This building is a registered historic landmark and is required to be restored to the original design.

Lynn Becker said...

The Thompson Center is not a designated landmark and has no landmark protection. With the current state of Illinois finances, I wouldn't count on seeing the granite restored anytime soon.

Alice Joyce said...

A building that so many have hated, and now they're given cause to shake their fists and say 'I told you so.'

I never counted myself among the vehement opposition, but I'm intrigued by the photos. Next time I'm in the city I'll look forward to visiting the plaza to see the latest rendition of Helmut Jahn's Chicago landmark for myself. Albeit, not designated as such.