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Counterpoint: Make this iconic Chicago building work

There is no doubt something must be done about the James R. Thompson Center.The building shows signs of the rough life it’s led since its 1987 completion. Its exterior granite once fell onto Clark Street. The aging warren of office spaces irks employees.The tattered carpet is old enough to have possibly outlived the workers who laid it. Overall, a certain dinge has set it.


But wrecking the Thompson Center, as Gov. Bruce Rauner wants, would be an embarrassing waste of architecture and opportunity. Especially in a city that prides itself as an architectural capital of the world.

The center is among the city’s most spectacular public buildings. Stand in that 17-story atrium on a sunny day. Even in the building’s worn condition, the views are stunning.

If Chicago a world-class city, then this building must be fixed up and set right. That’s what Rauner should have said at his Tuesday news conference. Instead, he stood in that atrium and discussed a plan to sell the Helmut Jahn-designed building to anyone who could demolish it in a year and build something new and (privately owned) on the spot.

Instead of this shortsighted and wrongheaded gambit, billionaire Rauner can use his connections and business savvy to put together a deal to bring a higher level of retailers to the center’s commercial spaces. Higher rents would defray building’s restoration and upkeep costs.

Or he could sell the building under an agreement that it is not demolished. The new owner would be required to restore and reuse the building, perhaps as a mixed-use facility with retail, hotel and meeting spaces. The building has more square footage of space than McCormick Place’s Lakeside Center. New uses must be investigated before demolition is even considered.

Rauner’s announcement came days after the start of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, a three-month event that seeks to bring global attention to the city’s role in architecture.

One of the event’s first major panels discussed the preservation of postmodern buildings. “Preservation’s new frontier,” they called it. Timing is everything: the building used in materials to publicize the discussion was the Thompson Center.

Lee Bey is host of Architecture360 on the Rivet Radio app and writes the Urban Observer blog. He is former architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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