Thirty years ago, I attended “Dancing in the State,” an immersive performance that brought 150 dancers from Chicago and New York dance companies, along with art, lighting and sound installations to the then-six-year-old State of Illinois Building. This spectacle activated every aspect of the young building, from its plaza to its sculpture to its magnificent atrium, epitomizing the vigorous, creative spirit that infused the new center. I fell in love with Helmut Jahn’s masterpiece that day, sensing that I was present at the beginning of a fresh public engagement with civic space. Unfortunately, it was both beginning and an end, since I’ve never been back for anything other than the most mundane of reasons, driver’s license renewals, CTA transfers, or a quick visit to the nondescript food court. But that atrium never fails to stir my soul.
Now, close your eyes and envision the new State of Illinois building at 555 West Monroe, the one for which our government is abandoning its world-class home. Exactly. You can’t picture it. It’s a building neither noteworthy nor notorious; it’s a bureaucrat of architecture. Cynics might suggest it’s a better fit than Jahn’s forward-looking, idealistic of-the-people palace since the State of Illinois and the City of Chicago, as governing institutions, have always been more interested in hiding than showing. Why else do so many of our politicians retire to the penitentiary rather than Florida?
Ignore the talk of efficiency and cost: this is the real reason why our government officials have such an irrational obsession with departing the Thompson Center, as well as seeing it demolished. Just too much light.
For years, we’ve watched them weave a narrative around the inevitability of this outcome. Now just watch them roll in the wrecking crews, with or without an actual plan, like they did when they bulldozed the landmark McCarthy Building in 1989 to let it its emptied footprint lie fallow as Block 37 for twenty-seven years, or when they tore down eight Walter Gropius-designed Michael Reese Hospital structures in 2009, even though the city had already lost its Olympics bid, the rationale for destroying our only buildings designed by the Bauhaus legend.
We deserve government edifices that we want to visit, not that we have to. Places that we can bring tourists and show them what the state of Lincoln and Obama looks like in action. We deserve a government that understands the irreplaceable nature of what it has and, confronted with the special challenges that this building presents, sees that as an opportunity for harnessing the collective imagination of its people to fix it, to build it back better.
In early 2019, when our film “Knives and Skin” was having its world premiere in Berlin, we stayed in Potsdamer Platz. Nearly every day, or night, I found myself in Helmut Jahn’s magnificent Sony Center, a direct descendant of his Thompson Center. Combining bars, restaurants, movie theaters and grand public spaces with offices and residences, this 2000 edifice works as a public square in the best sense. In F. Philip Barash’s outstanding piece about the state of the Thompson Center in this issue, Jahn shares his idea for a reimagination of the Thompson Center, which he calls “Inside Out,” a proposal that would open up the space literally and figuratively, reviving and transcending the spirit of that long-ago dance activation that remains so unforgettable to me. This would be a public square for Chicago, a vision that, unlike the vague notions of colossal private skyscrapers favored by politicians, is tested and proven to work, and one in which the public stays front and center.
This is the imagination we deserve.
Look for Newcity’s May 2021 print edition at over 300 Chicago-area locations this week or subscribe to the print edition at Newcityshop.com.
In this issue:
State v. Jahn