There is a postmodern government building in Chicago that is in danger of being torn down.
It “might be called architecture on amphetamines,” wrote New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger in 1985 when the State of Illinois Center (now the James R. Thompson Center) opened, “a building that is so utterly relentless that it seems never to let you go.”
Once the embodiment of the future, draped in a banner reading “A Building for Year 2000,” why are so many people today ready to let go of the building, and why should it matter to you?
Architecture has always been a tool to project power. Neoclassicism has been a favored government style in America for its connections to the cradles of democracy in ancient Greece and Rome — but the same columns and pediments decorated slave plantations and dressed up American imperialism abroad. Neoclassical buildings can make the individual feel small, in awe of the power of the state.
Donald Trump understood this when on Dec. 21, 2020, he signed an executive order requiring all federal buildings to be designed in the neoclassical style. President Joe Biden did, too, when he overturned the order. This was not merely a squabble over taste, but part of the larger national question of how government works and for whom.
Part town square, part shopping mall
Long associated with skepticism and critique of grand narratives, Postmodernism would seem an odd choice for a Republican governor’s vanity building project. But this was 1985, in Chicago, and the governor, “Big Jim” Thompson, wanted a building that would represent his commitment to transparency.
Thompson personally selected the architect, Helmut Jahn, and his design for the building because it was the most audacious. Jahn used a bold palette of salmon pink and robin’s-egg blue — a pastel take on the American flag — curving mirrored glass and a towering atrium, to reference both neoclassical and modern precedents in a composition that was undeniably futurist: part town square, part shopping mall.
Critics of the building called it wasteful, inefficient, or worse: ugly — clichés that aren’t really about the building, but about government itself, and whether or not it has a role in improving people’s lives.
A backdrop for people power
The Thompson Center was designed to be a resource for the public to engage in both commerce and citizenship, and it met those goals well. In 2015, architecture critic Lee Bey called it “one of the finest — and most used — indoor public spaces in the state.”
As the people in power turned away from caring for the building, it brought power to the people. For 36 years, the Thompson Center has been a backdrop for protests.
In 1986, a thousand activists gathered in the building’s atrium in support of ending apartheid in South Africa. In 2007, the disability rights organization ADAPT wedged wheelchairs in the building’s entrances until Gov. Rod Blagojevich agreed to discuss the reopening of a state-run compound for disabled adults.
In 2019, the Thompson Center became the backdrop for a historic Chicago Public Schools teacher’s strike. Last month, activists gathered in the plaza to call for a civilian oversight commission to bring accountability to the Chicago Police Department.
The Thompson Center brought the light in, literally, to state government. It let the people see power and it forced power to see the people: whether waiting on line to get their driver’s license renewed or advocating for action. This is a quality of patriotic architecture that should be cherished. The people of the city can best do this by making the building a Chicago landmark.
It is important to preserve the Thompson Center, just like it was important to overturn Trump’s order. It is a reminder of how architecture can advance and critique democratic ideals. Great buildings can serve as representations of their time, and the Thompson Center embodies both the patriotism and the rebellion of the 1980s.
It is valuable as a reminder that the language of patriotism changes and that there is a vital role for architecture in evolving culture, in critiquing the very powers that it serves. Americans have fought hard for that right, up to and through the 2020 election. A pluralist society requires a pluralism of architecture, both existing and new.
Elizabeth Blasius is an architectural historian who has worked extensively in disaster recovery and climate change mitigation. She is the former Midwest editor of the Architect’s Newspaper.
Jonathan Solomon is an architect and associate professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He was curator, with Michael Rooks, of the exhibition “Workshopping, an American Model of Architectural Practice,” in the U.S. Pavilion at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale.
Blasius and Solomon are partners in the Chicago firm Preservation Futures and authors of a recent nomination of the James R. Thompson Center to the National Register of Historic Places.
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