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The James R. Thompson Center

2010 June 8
by Caroline Nye Stevens

CNS, 2010

100 W. Randolph St.

In May of 1985 a UFO landed on the corner of Clark and Randolph streets and it remains there today as the James R. Thompson Center (dubbed by many as “Starship Chicago”). Designed by internationally recognized local architect Helmut Jahn, it is easily the most controversial building in Chicago. Those who worked in the State of Illinois office building in its early days complained about baking in the summer and freezing in the winter. Many are repelled by the unconventional color scheme, and few understand the Stonehenge-like pillars that dot the exterior. Though the Thompson Center is riddled with problems, it boasts the most stunning atrium in the city.

The popular saying “talking about music is like dancing about architecture” assumes that architecture is frozen. But the Thompson Center can dance — that is, its lobby can. It moves like no other building in the city. People dash through the lobby and up and down its 17 floors in exposed elevator shafts. The combination of a tangled trellis of steel, highly reflective walls and a complex palette of blues and pinks makes for a dizzying effect. It’s hardly your typical government building.

James Thompson, the Illinois governor who commissioned the building, liked to claim that it embodied “an open government in action”. Helmut Jahn thought of it as “optimistic” architecture. Whatever it is, it’s different.

CNS 2010

The exterior is the interior’s opposite. Other than the bizarre choice of colors, the interior and exterior have little in common. While the interior is in motion, the exterior stands still, heavy and awkward. Up until recently a number of granite pillars, varying in size and supporting nothing, framed the building’s plaza. Only Jahn has ever understood them (they have recently been removed after one of the granite sections crashed to the ground). The focal point of the plaza is Jean Dubuffet’s white and black fiberglass sculpture “Monument with Standing Beast.” It is not so affectionately nicknamed “Snoopy in a Blender” by many Chicagoans.

Jahn simply wasn’t interested in designing a building that related to its noteworthy neighbors. The Daley Civic Center, a lauded minimalist Miesian building, is diagonal to the Thompson Center. And directly across Randolph Street sits the classically designed City Hall. Though the Thompson Center curves towards them, it is otherwise entirely unrelated. When viewing its rounded and shiny space-aged front, many wish that it would blast away. It’s there to stay though. And considering its soaring atrium, that’s a good thing.

CNS 2010


The debate surrounding the James R. Thompson Center is going strong on architecture critic Lee Bey’s Blog. Read some of the discussion going on there and share your thoughts on the building here (below in the comments section)! Helmut Jahn is a prolific architect with buildings all over Chicago and the rest of the world. To learn more about them visit the Jahn website. And one thing is sure – the Thompson Center is a fun building to photograph. To see more images of the building inside and out check out BLUEPRINT: Chicago’s facebook photo album.

What are your thoughts on the James R. Thompson Center? Please comment below.

5 Responses
  1. Hixx permalink
    June 9, 2010

    Fantastic description of the inside. When I give tours I show them the outside, agree that it’s frightening and then I challenge them to not like it on the inside. The interior is glorious. Thank you for this great post!

    • June 10, 2010

      Thanks! What an interesting approach to looking at the building — challenging your tour group to NOT like the inside. That would definitely be a challenge for me. I’d love to go on one of your tours sometime and see what the response is.

  2. June 9, 2010

    It’s been less fun since they beefed up security on the ground floor. I miss being able to shoot up in the elevator with a minimum of fuss.

  3. Paula permalink
    June 23, 2010

    You do such a great job of describing architecture, Caroline. Also, I had no idea that sculpture was Dubuffet! But it makes total sense.

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