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Belt-tightening state has down payment for tech deal

The proposed $250 million Discovery Partners Institute will anchor the development site called The 78 on the Near South Side.

A rendering of the proposed Discover Partners Institute building at the Near South Side development site known as The 78.
A rendering of the proposed Discover Partners Institute building at the Near South Side development site known as The 78.
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Architects often create a mystique about themselves. It’s part of their marketing. How to distinguish yourself and justify higher fees? Manufacture an image of wizardry.

Rem Koolhaas, of international renown, fits that category. Scores of articles attest to his genius. But for all the adulation, the man can still examine his own occupation with a clear head. He once wrote, “Architecture is a hazardous mixture of omnipotence and impotence.”

Call it omnipotence when it comes to imagining a newly built world, impotence when it comes to clients’ budgets and demands, modern whims, political pressures and economic cycles.

Into that foggy place last week came a state agency’s approval of a University of Illinois project in Chicago, a building with ambitions as a showpiece but with perils in its way.

It’s the proposed $250 million Discovery Partners Institute that will anchor the development site called The 78 on the Near South Side. The state Capital Development Board awarded the $15 million contract to the firm OMA-AMO, where Koolhaas is a partner, and the engineering and construction company Jacobs. DPI is intended to be a hub for research and collaboration involving technology.

The team’s glassy design is a mix of the bold and prosaic. Its serious side — offices and laboratories that require privacy — are concentrated on two sides that look like standard office layouts. The other sides have a fanciful bulge that contains an atrium, with space on each floor for temporary work stations, places to chat over coffee, outdoor terraces with sunny overlooks of the Chicago River and a park planned as part of The 78.

As the most prominent of eight partners, Koolhaas looms large at OMA. Concerning the DPI design, Bill Jackson, executive director of the institute, said, “I’m sure he had a hand in it. I can’t imagine a project like this without him getting involved.”

Lesa Branham, spokesperson for the Capital Development Board, said Koolhaas is not expected to have an active role, and the winning team identified the lead architect as Shohei Shigematsu out of OMA’s New York office. OMA confirmed that information. Shigematsu has handled North American assignments at OMA for a decade and has designed a performing arts center for the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Rem Koolhaas
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Shohei Shigematsu
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The team won a game of “Survivor,” architecture-style. Thirty-five groups submitted their qualifications. The state said six were short-listed for interviews by a selection committee and three invited to submit designs, for which each was paid $75,000. The other finalists were Foster & Partners Architects with the engineering firm Epstein and Studio Gang, headed by architect Jeanne Gang.

State officials said the Jacobs-OMA team won for its adaptable design that incorporates sundry uses in a single 500,000-square-foot building. “We got the best of the best designs here,” Jackson said.

Branham said in an email: “The winning team presented a proposal that was truly iconic and will be easily adaptable to the final project site (which changed late in the competition). The team’s lead designers conveyed a sense of sincere interest in listening to the owner’s needs and a willingness to adapt their concept in order to accommodate those needs.”

But it’s fair to ask why the state is even doing this as the pandemic ravages its budget. Gov. J.B. Pritzker, chastened by the defeat of his graduated income tax amendment, has warned of painful cuts. Those are unlikely to spare state universities that some legislators think have been living high for years anyway.

Pritzker still has political capital in DPI, though. Last week, as if to swear the project is real, the governor said he’s released $142 million for DPI and similar technology and innovation centers around the state.

It’s projected to be a $500 million state investment, matched by private donations and money the centers themselves can generate, that Pritzker said will support 50,000 new jobs over the next 10 years.

Jackson said it’s an essential expense. “Ask yourself, ‘How are we going to get out of the pandemic? How do you get the economy back together?’ One way you do that is construction projects,” he said.

He’s projecting that DPI at The 78 will be finished late in 2025, with construction starting about three years earlier. What about the private fundraising? “It’s good — announcements are coming,” he said.

However, he’s still a realist. Is money imperiled at least for a few years? “I’m sure everything is on the table,” Jackson said.

The DPI design is reminiscent, not in its profile but its organization, of the Thompson Center, with office floors arrayed beyond a larger atrium. That’s a cautionary comparison; hailed as a modern landmark when it opened 35 years ago, the Thompson Center now might be a teardown.

So much for omnipotence.

A rendering shows how the Discovery Partners Institute building would look from the Chicago River.
A rendering shows how the Discovery Partners Institute building would look from the Chicago River.
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