Chicago Architectural Club Announces 2021 Chicago Prize Competition: James R. Thompson Center

“Governor Pritzker has the opportunity, after years of neglect by his predecessors, to lead thru the sale of the Thompson Center by giving it new life. Repurposing the building the right way could go beyond what the building ever was, making it better, more public, and a place where you want to work, stay overnight, live or just visit and feel good. Miracles and dreams can become real.” (Helmut Jahn, 2020)

“For the 2021 Chicago Prize, the Chicago Architecture Center and the Chicago Architectural Club call for new visions for the State of Illinois Center/James R. Thompson Center.


Designed by Helmut Jahn, the State of Illinois Center, also known as James R. Thompson Center, is facing the threat of complete demolition. Located in the Chicago “Loop” it is a major transportation node, commercial center and workspace. The building has been criticized for being ugly, oversized, inefficient, and poorly maintained. However, the Thompson Center has been pivotal to urban transit and a highly democratic contemporary civic center. At the time of its construction in 1985, Helmut Jahn’s State of Illinois Center was a stark contrast to Chicago’s historic and modernist architecture, yet today it is an architectural icon in its own right. For the fourth year in a row, the Thompson Center has been listed in the Landmarks Illinois’ annual Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois and it was included in Preservation Chicago’s Chicago 7 Most Endangered list in 2018, 2019, and 2020. The Chicago Architectural Club and the Chicago Architecture Center ask the 2021 Chicago Prize participants to envision a new life for the building through restorative architecture.

“Inside the building the atrium is revealed: a breathtaking 17-story high public space covered by a slanted skylight 160 feet across. The circular atrium space is a contemporary interpretation of the rotunda, a classic architectural shape historically used for civic and public buildings. “Ringed at the lower levels by shops and restaurants, and on the upper tiers by state offices, this space is what the building is really about. […] Here, a very elegant and spidery structure enfolds the void and becomes the matrix on which everything is hung. Layers of office floor trays encircle the atrium, and the mechanics of getting up and down are celebrated. Seemingly freestanding elevator banks and articulated suspended stairways lend an air of kinetic sculpture, an impression compounded almost to limitless degrees by the kaleidoscopic reflective spandrel rings. These segmented bands turn the reflections of moving people into everchanging Duchamp paintings. The views, whether from top, middle, or ground floor are spectacular and endlessly changing.” (Murphy J., 1985)

“With this building Helmut Jahn proposes a new type of civic space open to the public. The floor plan’s ‘open office’ concept and the use of glass symbolically express the idea of an accessible and transparent government. Despite its high tech aesthetics, the human is at the center of the Thompson Center’s design. ‘It is intended that it provide a humane, stimulating environment, thus reestablishing the “social role of architecture.’ (Murphy J., 1985)

“Competition Brief

The architecture of Chicago is defined by its many layers of innovative architecture that have occurred throughout its history–the preservation, rethinking, repurposing and renewal of its most important buildings is critical to carry on the city’s long-standing reputation as a center of architectural innovation.

“The Thompson Center’s design was progressive for its time. Dwelling in the vertical shadows of modern icons like Mies van der Rohe’s Daley Center, Helmut Jahn’s mid- rise Thompson Center pierced the trends of neighboring International Style and Neoclassical buildings with a revolutionary concept for a civic building, one that represents a promising future of “transparency and accessibility”. Bringing together the various services of government offices in one building, the Thompson Center is also a major transit hub and a place for gathering to enjoy art, shop, and dine. Jahn brings open space indoors with the remarkable glazed 17-story grand atrium. Known as a “people’s center” or a “people’s palace”, the building was a symbol of government accessibility, transparency, and commitment to serving the people. This was a bold departure from how government buildings used to interface with the public.

“With modern materials adorning the slight colorful twists of the patriotic red, white and blue, and a building shape referencing the grand domes of the government structures in our state’s capitol, Jahn’s postmodern marvel has been recognized worldwide in both praise and criticism. Often mistaken for a stadium or perhaps a spaceship, since its construction, the James R. Thompson Center has generated contrasting feelings: it has been praised for its progressive architecture, and criticized for being oversized, inefficient, and costly to operate. Deferred maintenance and the lack of long-term reinvestment has taken a toll on the building through worn surfaces and failing systems. Helmut Jahn’s original design specified the use of double pane glazing for the building’s facades, which was later substituted with single pane glazing due to cost considerations. This resulted in overheated offices in the summer and severe condensation/ice buildup in winter. Additional cooling towers were later installed to regulate these drastic conditions, which have proven costly to maintain and operate. It is reported that the building’s energy usage is double that of similar downtown structures.

“The Thompson Center has been pivotal to Chicago as a transit hub, a revolutionary civic center that opened itself to the city, and an architectural milestone that symbolized a bold transition and looked toward a new future of architecture. Can our approach to renewal be one that doesn’t result in erasure but that builds upon the foundations of the past?

“For the 2021 Chicago Prize, the Chicago Architectural Club and the Chicago Architecture Center are calling for new, creative visions for the State of Illinois Center to give it new life while preserving its architecture and public character.

Competition Announcement: May 21
Early Registration Closes: June 25
Regular Registration Closes: July 2
Competition Submission Deadline: July 19 at 5pm CST
Winners Announced: August
Chicago Architecture Center Exhibition: Early Fall

First Place: $1,500
Second Place: $1,000
Third Place: $500”

Chicago Architectural Club for more information and registration

2021 Chicago Prize Competition: James R. Thompson Center Competition Brief

Contest seeks ideas for saving the Thompson Center; The 2021 Chicago Prize invites proposals for what it calls “a revolutionary civic center,” David Roeder, Chicago Sun-Times, 6/18/21

The 2021 Chicago Prize Competition tasks designers with reimagining an imperiled Thompson Center, Matt Hickman, The Architect’s Newspaper, 6/15/21


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