Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A Casino at the Thompson Center? Casting Dice for the Civic Realm

click images for larger view
It was proclaimed "the most spectacular building ever constructed in the Loop" at its 1985 opening, but the James R. Thompson Center has also always been the building people love to hate.  And for some, it's not enough just to hate:  there has to be revenge.  If they can't make it into a bordello, they'll settle for a gambling den, which is exactly what Chicago Federal of Labor President Jorge Ramirez proposed last week.  Will it happen?  Should it happen?  You can learn a lot about our architecture - and our civic psyche - in the life and times of the Thompson Center . . .

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. 
To the employees who moved there, it was also something of a hell hole.  As cost of the building's construction began to soar - the final $172 million tab was double the original budget - double-paned glass with silicone sealants was value-engineered down to single-paned glass with conventional metal mullions.  The story I always heard was that the mechanical engineers assured Jahn they could make up for the loss of insulation by just ramping up the cooling and heating.  They were wrong.   The mechanical ventilation proved inadequate to compensating for the heat gain from all that glass.  Temperatures topped out at 110 degrees, and electric fans became a standard accessory on the desks of sweltering workers.  It was a valuable, if painful lesson for Jahn, who thereafter developed the concept of "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
Amazingly enough, across the entire span of Chicago's history, the Thompson Center is only the second primary owner of its full-block site.  For 135 years, beginning in 1837 - the same year the city was incorporated - there had been a Sherman hotel at Clark and Randolph.  It was rebuilt five times.  The first, three stories high, was constructed by Francis Cornwall Sherman, who would go on to serve three terms as Chicago mayor.  The last, the 15-story, 757-bed structure designed by Holabird and Roche in 1911, was demolished in 1973, its roofline long-before shorn of the alluring female caryatids holding up the arched windows of the great Mansard roof that gave the building its aura of imperial splendor.  Appropriately enough, the Sherman was where the all-powerful Mayor Richard J. Daley held the slating sessions that determined which politicians he would allow to hold office in Chicago.
Imperial classicist was the standard style for civic buildings throughout most of the 20th century, including the one from which Helmut Jahn drew inspiration.  Henry Ives Cobb's 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
Jahn kept the concept and brought it into the modern. In the 1981 catalogue, New Chicago Architecture, he included what amounted to a manifesto that informed the building's design.
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.
And it wasn't just classicism that Jahn was going up against, but traditional modernism, as well, the kind where you could have a building in any color and shape you wanted, as long it was black and a  Miesian box.
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 was Jahn's proclamation of the New Age of Postmodernism.  Instead of right angles, curves.  Instead of rigid grids, varied, irregular space.  Instead of monochrome, bold color.  It was a young man's game, and a short-lived movement, with the Thompson Center as its monument.

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.
Chicago's position in all this is like the story of the little boy pointing to a Bible picture of Daniel and saying, “Look at the poor lion in the corner - he isn't going to get any!”  For over a decade, Mayor Richard M. Daley watched while Chicago was passed over as newly licensed casinos opened all around it.  His successor, Rahm Emanuel, continues to lobby vigorously for that Chicago casino that will finally get the city its deserved slice of the take.

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
Even ignoring the legislative problem, however, it's hard to see how the combination of  "quickly up and running" and "Thompson Center casino" is anything other than an oxymoron.  There's a little issue of finding new homes for thousands of employees of over 50 state entities that are currently taking up the better part of a million-square-feet of Thompson Center space.  And then there's negotiating the termination of all the retail and food court leases, and navigating the inevitable court challenges to the sale.  Even taking out of the equation the fact the State would have to start paying rent for space they now own, it's better-than-even-money that the cost of all this would wind up being some obscene multiple of the one-time proceeds from selling the building.

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
Traditionally, casinos were engineered to be closed boxes, shut off from natural light.  It keeps glare off the cards and video screens, but more importantly, the absence of windows - or even clocks - create a controlled environment that encourage gamblers to lose track of time.  Those design concepts have undergone some evolution.  Rivers in Des Plaines has incorporated both windows and skylights, and claims to be the first LEED Gold-certified casino in the world.  (We may be going to hell, but at least we're "green".)  Still, when you look at photo's of the actual gaming areas, they still veer towards the same, drop-ceiling, enclosed box you see in the photograph above.
In contrast, when you enter the Thompson Center, it's through doors at the base of a sweeping window-wall, 17-stories high, topped by a massive skylight dome.  Even in the basement - where a casino would most likely be stuffed - you're still beneath a massive, 70-foot diameter oculus that opens up to the great rotunda, which bottles up natural light with a sometimes blinding intensity.  Inviting a gambler into the Thompson Center would be like asking a vampire to step outside at noon.

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
And yet, for that very reason, I resist.  The Thompson Center, along with City Hall, County Building and Daley Center, make up what is Chicago's civic center.  You may think me a schlub, but, even with all the corruption and knavery, I still think the idea of a civic heart of the city is something worth fighting for.  It's not a place for roulette wheels and video poker.  It's one thing to acknowledge that, in a free society, people have the right to do stupid things; it's quite another to invite slot machines into a civic cathedral.
Make no mistake: a lot of people would just say, "Good riddance!"  They hate, hate hate the Thompson Center.  Passionately.

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.

5 comments:

Thomas Clark said...

I never really liked it. It's an interesting enough design to have been welcomed in the mix of our city's landscape. If it becomes a casino I'll just hate it.

Anonymous said...

THATS A GREAT POST LB

Anonymous said...

I'm amazed that you consider this building, imposed by an elite few on an unhappy public, the Spirit of Democracy. If people could have voted on this thing, it would not have been built.

Lynn Becker said...

Quite possibly. Also probably no Picasso Statue either, and maybe no Daley Center, Calder Flamingo, or Mies Post Office. Democracy does not mean everything becomes a popularity poll. We elect people to act on our behalf. The general rule is that 90% of everything is crap, so is it some sort of horrible elitism to shoot for the 10% that offers real quality? Would we better off if we didn't try to get the best artist in the world, but instead bowed to former Ald. Hoellen's crowd-pleasing campaign to tear down the Picasso and replace it with a statue of Ernie Banks?

Trinityserviceshvac said...

If it becomes a casino I'll just hate it.
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