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Winning ideas in Thompson Center design contest
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Winning ideas in Thompson Center design contest

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Thompson Center - File

Exterior view of the Thompson Center in Chicago's Loop on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020.

The James R. Thompson Center could be transformed from an unkempt state office building into a “vertical neighborhood” anchored at ground level by an indoor park next to the Chicago Transit Authority station, with commercial and related spaces on the first few floors that give way to private residences on the upper levels and a rooftop garden.

Or home to a new prototype for a public school.

Or, sure to be a social media crowd favorite, a water park.

Those were the three winning submissions for the Thompson Center design competition sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Center and the Chicago Architectural Club.

The contest was aimed breathing new life, at least conceptually, into the controversial, glassy postmodern building whose future is uncertain. Winning submissions will each be given a $1,000 prize.

The state put the Helmut Jahn-designed building at 100 W. Randolph St. up for sale with Gov. J.B. Pritzker, like his predecessors, arguing it’s a drain on state finances; according to a recent state estimate the 17-story building needs $325 million in repairs. Final bids from would-be buyers are due Oct. 8 with the legislature setting a sale date of April 5.

While the competition isn’t tied to the terms of sale for the building, the contest’s sponsors hope the designs, to be publicly displayed, will spur discussion and debate. The winning entries, announced Monday afternoon, are:

— A team from Chicago architectural firm Perkins&Will whose design, dubbed “Public Pool,” would feature a water park in the Thompson Center’s atrium and a hotel above. The design is aimed to be accessible to Chicagoans and tourists alike in the heart of the Loop.

— Christopher Eastman and Tom Lee of Chicago’s Eastman Lee Architects, whose winning proposal includes a ground floor public park, several levels of commercial space and residences on the rest of the 17-floor building. Dubbed “Offset: The Vertical Loop” the architects propose creating a “thermal enclosure” behind the exterior or curtain wall that would allow for better temperature control in a building that has long struggled with heat and cold.

— A team from Chicago architectural firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz whose “One Chicago School” design is described as a new prototype public school for students interested in public policy and civic engagement. Students in Chicago would learn, question, and ignite change at the school.

Ostensibly, the design competition was created to reimagine the controversial building, which was built in 1984 and was named for the state’s 37th governor. But the emphasis on preservation clearly sends a message to elected leaders and the next owner: Save it from the wrecking ball.

“The jury’s selected winners for the 2021 Chicago Prize Competition provide three clear and attainable futures for the Thompson Center,” Elva Rubio, Chicago Architectural Club co-president said in a statement about the competition on Monday.

The jury included experts in designing museums and civic spaces, restorative architecture and landscape architecture, historic preservation as well as the work of Jahn.

A battle between the state and preservationists has been brewing over the fate of the building.

In June, the state Historic Preservation Office, which is part of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, signed a memorandum of agreement that the Thompson Center should not be considered a “historic resource.”

The document appears to have been created in anticipation of the building’s sale, and it states a sale and potential demolition “would not constitute an adverse effect on a historic resource protected under the Illinois State Agency Historic Resources Preservation Act.” Preservationists see the agreement as a way to remove any barriers to developers scooping up the property and tearing it down.

In May, the City Council approved new zoning for the Thompson Center that would allow one of Chicago’s tallest skyscrapers to replace — or be built next to — the glassy postmodern building at 100 W. Randolph, giving would-be developers an opportunity to build on the footprint of the property, while keeping Thompson Center intact.

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