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The huge structure with its soaring atrium and sweeping curve of glass curtain wall was an immediate sensation, making the name of its architect, Helmut Jahn, known throughout the world. It also quickly became a flashpoint of controversy, both for design and function. It was the "alien spaceship" that landed the movement known as Post Modernism at City Hall's front door. To many, its bold color palette was an insult to the accustomed faux-classicism of traditional civic architecture.
archineering", working closely with structural engineers such as Werner Sobek and environmental engineers like Matthias Schuler to make sure his buildings were both comfortably habitable and energy efficient.
|Sherman House, Holabird and Roche|
Federal Courthouse of 1905 was a massive structure with a full-block base, four enormous wings, and an open, central rotunda that, at 100 feet in diameter, was larger than the one at the U.S. Capitol. It rose the full height of the building, terminating in a great 100-foot-tall dome. The massive structure was demolished for the Federal Center designed by Mies van der Rohe. Two of the building's 40-foot-high columns now grace the Cancer Survivors Garden in North Grant Park.
|Federal Courthouse, Henry Ives Cobb|
We believe in the influences of the past, the changing implication of the present and the possibilities and potential of the future. Any denial of these implications of the present and future would prove as mistaken as the disregard towards the qualities of history, context, and ornament once shown by the modern movement.In Jahn's design for the Thompson, just as in Cobb's Courthouse, a great rotunda rises the full building height, but instead of being in the center, it's placed against a soaring window-wall that fronts a large public plaza. Jahn slices off Cobb's dome at its base, substituting a 70 foot-diameter skylight that floods the rotunda with natural light, setting the vibrant colors of the balconies ablaze. The openness of Jahn's design embodies the kind of transparency to which democratic government aspires.
Modern Movement's masters (Wright, Mies, Le Corbusier) are dead and their followers have overracted or become stale. . . . [and] produced buildings without connection to site, place, the human being and history. This architecture failed in its utopian belief of universal solutions to problems of shelter and urban living, never harnessed the potential of technology, industrialization and without reference or meaning gave up the architect's traditional role as the willful creator of form . . .
The Thompson Center as Poker Chip: the Lure of a Chicago Casino
When it comes to gambling, the average politician is as much an addict as the junkie begging his dealer for "just one last fix" before he goes cold turkey.
When it comes to smoking, you could argue that the taxes that politicians keep raising on cigarettes have made the product so expensive it's actually been effective in cutting down on a harmful addiction. In contrast, the relationship of politicians to gamblers is both parasitic and enabling. It depends on the weakness of people for gambling, and, by making gambling more omnipresent and accessible, actually promotes shifting more of the state's income from productive to non-productive use.
Government sanctioned casino gambling, in the last analysis, is a sucker's bet. Even as opportunities increase, casino gambling declines. Although 2012 saw a big spike in revenue, to $1.638 billion, after the mid-2011 opening of the Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, state-wide totals were still below 2002's $1.8 billion. Spending at every one of the state's other casinos declined, and the revenue surge at Rivers Casino is unlikely to continue. Singapore experienced a boom with the opening of its first casinos in 2010; now that the novelty factor has worn off, revenue declined 20% in the latest quarter.
It's not like there are a lot of new dollars to pursue. Other than in Las Vegas, casinos draw most of their suckers not from tourists, but from locals. It's basically a zero-sum game of Chicago taking back all those dollars currently being spent just outside the city's borders, in the suburbs and Indiana. The odds are that for every job a Chicago casino adds, one will be lost in an existing casino elsewhere. Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno, meet Ubi Est Mea.
So why, with so many other sites such as the Old Post Office or a vacant parcel near McCormick Place, is there now the call to convert the Thompson Center to a casino? Desperation. Everyone, including labor, is shaking out the sofa cushions looking for loose change to help address the state's overwhelming pension funding shortfall.
But when the CFL's Ramirez cites as the best reason for a Thompson Center sale being how "it allows us to quickly get the casino up and running," you have to wonder what he's smoking. First off, the enabling legislation necessary for a Chicago casino has yet to be passed and signed by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. The terms of that legislation has been a source of friction between Quinn and Mayor Rahm Emanuel for years. We keep being told a deal is inevitable, but at least so far, the inevitable continues to stall just outside the station.
|James R. Thompson Center, night|
And beyond that: who would be the buyer?
Ramirez and Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce President Jerry Roeper's cite the Thompson Center's obsolescence as one of the primary motivators for selling the building: we've a got a building with a lot of very expensive deferred maintenance, so why not sell it and make it someone else's problem? You have to admire them for their chutzpah, but if we know it, everyone knows it - "Hey, have we got a building for you! It wasn't really designed to be a casino, so you'll have to work all that out. It probably has 700-800,000 more square feet than you need. And all the mechanical systems? They're so old they'll probably need to be completely replaced." Not the kind of things you generally want to see on a sales brochure.
Still, the Thompson Center as hotel may not be so far-fetched. During my segment on WTTW, we were watching some video of the Center's rotunda, and host Phil Ponce remarked how it really had the look of one those great Portmanesque hotel atriums. But as a casino?
|Trump Taj Mahal, photograph:Raul654, Wikipedia|
In the final analysis, if you look at it with an appropriately cynical eye, converting the Thompson Center to a casino would be the perfect symbol of an age in which the very idea of a civic realm, of citizens working together toward the greater common good, is being rebranded as a chump's delusion. Our public patrimony, laboriously built up over the course of centuries by those who came before us - highways, airports, schools and streets - are sold off to the highest bidder, just so we can make the next month's rent. And when we run through that latest big pot of cash, decades before it was supposed to run dry, the cycle just repeats, to ever diminishing returns. We're back to ransacking our own house for something else to hock.
A gambling den in the Thompson Center would be the perfect declaration of the triumph of the casino society, where the idea of a successful, hard-working middle class continues to be destroyed, in favor of a widening chasm of ever more desperate people, gambling their own lives that they feel they no longer control, on the chance that when the wheel stops spinning, it'll be on that one-in-a-hundred number that rescues them from a servile fate.
|Jean Dubuffet, Monument with Standing Beast, looking toward Daley Center|
I get it. Those colors! There's got to be a reason why that combination of salmon and baby blue have never been seen anywhere else in nature, or, for that matter, the known universe. But I've made my peace with them. When I was growing up, I experienced the color palette of Victorian and Edwardian architecture as almost suffocating - it seemed to reek of a decadent aesthetic. But now, when you look at something like the recent restoration of London's St. Pancras Hotel, boarded up for nearly 75 years as an eccentric embarrassment, all you can say, is "Wow!" (What I wouldn't give to have the Edwardian Chicago and Northwestern Station back.)
I remember many years ago when a dance company choreographed an evening program on the Thompson Center's escalators and balconies. I remember how I found it magical. And I wasn't alone. I could see the audience was clearly delighted. If there were more events like that, where you're not rushing to get somewhere, but can just stand back and look, I think a lot more people would come to appreciate this extraordinary space.
When I walk into the Thompson's Center incredible, soaring, unashamedly vulgar, sensory overload of a rotunda - color popping, buzzing, blazing with light, animated to detail by the movement of the human figure - the energy sweeps over me like a tidal wave. Amplified by its hyper-active container, it fills me up, this visceral stew of avarice and idealism, failure and hope, despair and aspiration. There is nothing else like it. More than any other structure in Chicago, the James R. Thompson Center, and its bold, in-your-face architecture, embodies the raw and reckless Spirit of Democracy.
|sculpture: Bridgeport, by John Henry. more info here.|