The Most Endangered Building in Chicago [Thompson Center by Helmut Jahn]

The Most Endangered Building in Chicago [Thompson Center by Helmut Jahn]

In this video, we visit Chicago’s most endangered building–the Thompson Center by Helmut Jahn–and discuss issues related to its preservation and impending demolition.

(Can you spot the awesome typo mid video?)

Perhaps no building in Chicago is closer to a date with the wrecking ball than the Thompson Center by the architect Helmut Jahn. While those responsible for initiating this threat cite years worth of deferred maintenance and high costs of operation as the primary reasons for their decision, these are not the real reasons for the building’s demise. It suffers from a much more lethal ailment — treating it like a normal building. In this video, Stewart explains why the Thompson Center is definitely not a normal building and offers alternative ways to evaluate it. What if we considered it to be a piece of urban infrastructure or public plaza instead? Relating the building to Rem Koolhaas’ theory of ‘Bigness’, this video builds the case that the Thompson Center should be valued for how it brings people together in space rather than its colors, or material palette, or any other normal ways of evaluating mere buildings.

3D Model Team from UIC School of Architecture: John Gritsonis, Ricardo Sandoval, Aaron Cortez, Andrew Sterniuk, Brandon Hogan, Eugenia Dittmar, Juan Reyes, Katherine Denemark, Lindsey Louisma, Masumi Thakkar, Eric Nunez, Julian Gonzalez

Explore the Space on your Device:
Download Rhino 3D File:
FOLLOW me on instagram: @stewart_hicks & @designwithco
Design With Company:
University of Illinois at Chicago School of Architecture:


  1. Martin Kirik on December 1, 2021 at 11:14 pm

    Instantly I thought it’s endangered because it’s the only one of its kind and it can’t find a mate.

  2. von Richthofen on December 1, 2021 at 11:14 pm

    Helmut Jahn learned from the mistakes made here when he built the Sony Center in Berlin, it looks very similar but is open to all sides, has a fountain in the middle, a cinema, museum etc and has become one of Berlin’s most popular public places. I think the Thompson center could become something like that too if the necessary adjustments are made.

  3. shenanigans on December 1, 2021 at 11:16 pm

    Surely one obvious solution is to physically open it up. You’d have to interfere with the original vision but if the cooling/heating is such a problem, maybe that’s just a price you’d have to pay. Get a great adaptive firm (Renfro?) to turn the central atrium into a true open space and then seal off the upper levels…?

  4. Victor Pluntky on December 1, 2021 at 11:17 pm

    Came back to this video after realising I have a book of Helmut Jahn collected works in my shelf. Then read some more and realised he died just a month after this video was released. Really sad to hear. His catalogue of work is really impressive!

  5. Landon Jones on December 1, 2021 at 11:19 pm

    THANK YOU for identifying that potential as the subject confuses people. that’s usually true

  6. nicol Knappen on December 1, 2021 at 11:20 pm

    If Chicago’s collective architectural clout cannot fix and repurpose the building, it’s Chicago’s fault, not Helmut Jahn’s.

  7. zyxwvutsrqponmlkh on December 1, 2021 at 11:24 pm

    I bet the maintenance wouldn’t be so expensive if it weren’t done by government work. NY subway janitors make a million dollars a year in overtime and bonuses.

  8. NYK WHY on December 1, 2021 at 11:25 pm

    @4:48 you synced the beat with the taps. noice.

  9. Vaktimus Prime on December 1, 2021 at 11:26 pm

    I used to eat lunch in this building all of the time when I still worked downtown. It was really cool to just sit in the space and just soak up how huge it was and the way the sound bounced around. I am not really an architecture buff (although I’m sure being born and raised in Chicago i’ve got an appreciation for it by osmosis) but as a writer It always felt like a really inspiring space and I started some fun stories within its confines.

  10. Ric Soares on December 1, 2021 at 11:27 pm

    You are a good man and you do good things; you will leave a legacy of learning and teaching young architecture students. Your legacy shall only be shadowed by your remarkable mustache; so thick and dense and healthy.

  11. Jae Eph on December 1, 2021 at 11:28 pm

    It’s ugly. Hopefully the two heaps of garbage in front of it get taken to the the landfill too.

  12. Random Koolzip on December 1, 2021 at 11:28 pm

    I don’t quite know what to make of this. You seem to know a good deal about architecture in general, but at the same time you seem surprisingly unfamiliar with Chicago architecture. Which is surprising, since you say that you teach architecture in Chicago. For instance, you react to the Delaware Building (which is on the National Register of Historic Places) as if you’re seeing it for the first time. You display little knowledge of the Cultural Center. You claim that Chicago lacks outdoor plazas while standing only a block away from the Daley Center Plaza. And you seem dismissive of the Thomas Beeby-designed Harold Washington Library, even though many of the things for which you praise the Thompson Center apply equally to the Library.

    The Thompson Center atrium never could have acted as an indoor plaza, for the simple reason that there’s a big hole in the middle of the floor that opens up the food court below. If Helmut Jahn wanted to create a civic gathering place, he made a peculiar choice to put that hole there. And the public space at the entrance on the corner of Randolph and Clark can only accommodate small gatherings, as it is broken up by the Dubuffet sculpture (nicknamed "Snoopy in a Blender" by the locals). The Daley Center and Federal plazas are, in contrast, much more functional and people-friendly.

    In any event, whatever public function that the Thompson Center might have served has been lost to the crisis-level security of the post-9/11 state. As others here have noted, there is nothing welcoming or friendly about the Thompson Center, where the official attitude is clearly "state your business or get out." As such, the building is as much a relic of a bygone age as the Cultural Center is, even though a century separates the two buildings. The only difference is that the Cultural Center could be successfully repurposed. If the Thompson Center is torn down, I, for one, won’t be sorry to see it go.

  13. Isaac Smith on December 1, 2021 at 11:32 pm


  14. Carlos Emilio Rivera Warner on December 1, 2021 at 11:32 pm

    I never liked the building all that much (not unlike so many Chicagoans). The DMV was in there, so the building made the experience even more outlandish than simply going on a more ordinary (and horrible) DMV office. The place/space was never welcoming. However, the irony of it being replaced by a completely unimaginative structure (like the Chicago Public Library mocked at 01:37) would be too, too much. Chicago has a ton of great architecture, but a bunch of mediocre/bad stuff, too.

  15. OneHairyGuy on December 1, 2021 at 11:33 pm

    Awesome ?? Awesomely bad. This building is a vanity piece for Helmut Jahn’s ego. You know what they say, "The bigger the ego the smaller the mans package is !" I’ve been to Chicago and visited this load of crap. It’s not a public building. It says it is, but unless you have business there, you will be turned away. So why even call it public ?? Why the whole in the center ?? Wasted space. It’s supposed to be a government building, so why not get as many offices out of the area you have ?? No, Jahn just wanted to get recognition for designing a large, ugly, wasteland. Tear this thing down, quickly. Or make some new Bruce Willis movie 🎥 where THIS building get blown up !!

  16. hattree on December 1, 2021 at 11:35 pm

    It reminds me of my house in Florida. Big empty space that seems impossible and inefficient to heat and cool.

  17. Jax Stax on December 1, 2021 at 11:35 pm

    Seems like a waste to get rid of something that took so much effort to build. Can’t they just repurpose it or spend the money elsewhere?

  18. john kevil, jr on December 1, 2021 at 11:36 pm

    Sorry Stewart, the Thompson Center is bow-wow. It’s HVAC Systems never worked correctly, and the floors were under structured. So say folks that have worked in that crappy building. And well, it’s fugly. It doesn’t serve the public well at all.

  19. 0cer0 on December 1, 2021 at 11:38 pm

    Europeans, visit Sony Center in Berlin, near Potsdamer Platz. There you can get a feeling what this is all about. And, surprisingly, it works!

  20. edgwaterprog on December 1, 2021 at 11:38 pm

    Interesting video. I enjoyed your main topic. However, I take issue with you comment that Chicago doesn’t have any public squares. 1. There are several in or near the Loop. Daley Plaza, the Federal Plaza, the plaza at the north end of the Michigan Avenue Bridge. 2. Aren’t large areas of the Thompson Center closed to the public when the State offices are closed? I, like you have mixed feelings about this building, and a part of me will be sad to see it go. If only the State of Illinois had the resources and will to create a grand public space to rival the City’s Daley Center and the Federal Government’s plaza on Dearborn – both are exuberant High Modern creations of Mies van der Rohe and both are fabulous.

  21. Walter Pleyer on December 1, 2021 at 11:38 pm

    What’s the structure at 0:28?
    An unfinished building, just the skeletton?

  22. jussayin mipeece on December 1, 2021 at 11:38 pm

    i may be mistaken but there is a building called Thompson Hall in Toronto that looks exactly like this so maybe the guy was actually called Thompson.

  23. ArkMaDuke on December 1, 2021 at 11:39 pm

    now I really want to go tHERE now haha

  24. Matthew Messner on December 1, 2021 at 11:40 pm

    Andrew Zago once said "It’s ok to tear down any building, as long as you replace it with something better." I have a hard time believing that something better is going to take the Thompson Center’s place. It sure didn’t work out for Prentice.

  25. Robert Walker on December 1, 2021 at 11:40 pm

    This reminds me of the set for the movie "Metropolis". I imagine sullen workers climbing those infinite stairways and tiny biplanes flying slowly making quick right angle turns.
    But getting to the real problem, it seems this building is hotel architecture, not for business offices. It could fairly easily become a Ritz Carlton or a Marriott, or perhaps a retail mall like the Water Tower Place over on Michigan Avenue. These are all tax generating solutions city government would support and operators would clamor for such a prime central location.

  26. Christie-Anna Nguyen on December 1, 2021 at 11:42 pm

    It would be a shame to waste all that embodied energy especially in today’s climate. Lacaton and Vassal should get on board. And whatever happens, it should remain public.

  27. Immersion Project on December 1, 2021 at 11:43 pm

    "If you keep going, you’ll come across another building; no, not that one." Lol

  28. Derek Paul Kluz on December 1, 2021 at 11:45 pm

    Have you done a video in your apartment? Man it’s beautiful. My style exactly. Nice work.

  29. py Head on December 1, 2021 at 11:46 pm

    "Deferred Maintenance" means, politicians stealing maintenance money for their own pet projects.

  30. Derek Paul Kluz on December 1, 2021 at 11:47 pm

    Plus HELMUT JAHN. It’s gotta stay. Tear down an IM PEI instead, please

  31. Steve Elshoff on December 1, 2021 at 11:49 pm

    New to your channel; and enjoy it greatly. Sorry to say, but we’re in some deep disagreement on this one. I lived in Chicago for most of the 90’s and grew to loath the Thompson building. It captures all that’s wrong with modern architecture, namely it’s complete disinterest in doing anything more than impressing other architects. I used to laugh at the irony of it being the home of the DMV, an agency – and experience – that no building could make less soul sucking. The irony was that it was a perfect fit.

  32. mikhail gelovani on December 1, 2021 at 11:49 pm

    I’m sorry to hear this building is slay=ted for demolition. It’s not very handsome on the exterior, but the atrium space is wonderful; changing character throughout the day as the light changes. The mass and height of the TC do give some – visual and spacial – relief within a dense commercial core, where all the surrounding buildings are 30+ storeys. It’s a shame they cannot renovate, or redevelop the building while maintaining some of its features. I guess air space is just too valuable everywhere now.

  33. Eric Grigorof on December 1, 2021 at 11:52 pm

    Preservation doesn’t have to mean keep it as a time capsule. They should refurbish it with a more energy efficient curtain wall.

  34. jussayin mipeece on December 1, 2021 at 11:54 pm

    everywhere in the damn US you go there is always an idiot telling how you are not allowed to film in a public space. WTF is wrong with you people and cameras. For a place that has ten cameras on every building and you cant walk two steps whiteout being filmed youall seem to have a real problem with cameras.

  35. Zinedine Zethro on December 1, 2021 at 11:54 pm

    Nothing is better than a good ugly building in a city. Trust me when i say, good ugly buildings are gorgeous.

  36. Milo Persic on December 1, 2021 at 11:56 pm

    You didn’t know the Cultural Center was there for the first five years you lived in Chicago? Are you trolling us?

  37. py Head on December 1, 2021 at 11:56 pm

    I don’t think such a large empty space is appropriate for Chicago weather.

  38. Stephen Smith, Assoc AIA, MBA on December 1, 2021 at 11:57 pm

    This building served as my first experience working in an architecture office. I was in my last year of school at IIT, and I started working in the model shop at C.F. Murphy, which was on the 2nd floor of the Railway Exchange Building. We worked on some spectacular models, but the model of the State of Illinois Center (Thompson Center) was, by far, the most spectacular. When I showed a photo composite of the building integrated in the Chicago skyline, no one believed that this building would ever be built. Thanks for your honest assessment of the Space Ship. I cringe when I think of one of the first projects I ever worked on being demolished!

  39. KevinN on December 1, 2021 at 11:59 pm

    Chop the top of the atrium off, remove all of the exterior windows closing in that area and make that area an outdoor space. ANNNDD fixed!!

  40. confusedwhale on December 2, 2021 at 12:03 am

    It does not inspire awe to me.
    It does not fill me with numbing brilliance.
    It is not awesome.

  41. Pierre A. Larsen on December 2, 2021 at 12:03 am

    I appreciate the grandeur, the uniqueness and the clever engineering. The building organisation also seems well thought out. I suppose the people who used it can tell?!
    But esthetically it is not my cup of tea.

  42. Stewart Hicks on December 2, 2021 at 12:05 am

    What do you think of the Thompson Center?

  43. TheHolyRamonEmpire on December 2, 2021 at 12:06 am

    Cool video! but I still think it looks like an eye sore

  44. Scott Holl on December 2, 2021 at 12:06 am

    I moved to Chicago in 1984, just as the Thompson Center was being completed, and lived there until 1994 and again from 1998 to 2003. I couldn’t wait to visit it after it was completed. Most of my interaction with the building involved getting my driver’s license renewed, but I always took some time to look around or eat at the food court. The building was completed when I was young and now has seemingly outlived its usefulness—that makes me feel old. I hope it can be saved—Chicago is notorious for knocking down important architecture. If it goes, a part of past will go with it.

  45. Ian Zainea on December 2, 2021 at 12:07 am

    I really like the Chicago Public Library. Each floor is like a completely different design so it’s quite exciting going through them. And then the winter garden on the roof is amazingly cool. And they have models of the various designs that were considered. I enjoy it!

  46. Derek Paul Kluz on December 2, 2021 at 12:07 am

    “All good architecture leaks”. Mies van der Rohe

  47. Tristou on December 2, 2021 at 12:07 am

    Well, that is a beautiful love-letter to the Thompson Center! I’m old enough to have loved post-modernism when it was cool and new, and even before I had learned much about architecture at all, so really truly an emotional reaction, no theory or knowledge or anything to deepen my appreciation. But man, what a building the Thompson Center is : truly a glorious shining example of post-modernism in so many, many ways, so thank you for making such a great video about it. t would indeed be lovely to see it updated and corrected rather than torn down, but hey. I’d vote for, believe it or not, giving up the closed atrium which, while brilliant in concept, sure comes at a big price to allow people to walk a few extra steps before zipping up their coats or to stand on a balcony in shirtsleeves during winter. Covering alleyways works for me big time. Huge atria sound impressive, but to me often feel like a lot effort for something that ends up being, well, too small for what you want even if it’s BIG! Rather like filling small European apartments with mid-century furniture meant for huge American ranch houses.

  48. DJMinor5000 on December 2, 2021 at 12:09 am

    I remember seeing this building showcased in the architecture magazines years ago. It is understandable that the average lay person would have mixed feelings about the design, but as an architect, I see opportunities to make this building great! If the state no longer wants the building, they should just sell it off to a private buyer to renovate it into other uses. It would make a great shopping mall, entertainment and dining complex with offices on the upper floors and maybe a high-end restaurant on top floor. Since building materials and systems have greatly improved since the building was completed, they could easily resolve the excessive daylight and HVAC issues.

    If you can make the interior more exciting rather than just a state office building, and update building interiors and exteriors, the people will come. M

    If I am not mistaken, the Marilyn Monroe statue was displayed at this building for awhile? It is now back in Palm Springs, California.

  49. Josh Quillan on December 2, 2021 at 12:10 am

    Boggles my mind that people can call this ugly. It’s exciting! It’s the sort of fun, unorthodox and entirely unique architecture that manufactures real emotion and makes people love their city.
    I first learned of this building when I saw Running Scared and I had to find out where that awesome building from the finale is (it’s actually a pretty rubbish gunfight, as movie gunfights go, but as a showcase of architecture it’s way more fun that someone walking around pointing), and it’s on my ‘must see’ list if I ever go to the US. I’ve never heard of the problems of this thing, but demolishing it should be illegal; I bet whatever they propose to do with the site costs way more than fixing this would and is much less interesting in every way.
    Great vid – subscribed! Loving some of the comments on here too, learned a lot about this building from you all.

  50. Canis Lupus on December 2, 2021 at 12:11 am

    I’m not a fan of the Thompson Center. Generally I like a good brutalist building which of course this is not. I generally like the Dystopian style that makes humans feel like tiny cogs in a big automated uncaring machine and this has some of that feeling. The building just looks cheap. The cladding is uninspired. I LOVE the complexity of the building surrounding the massive atrium. The building fails as a public space so the building can’t generate civic love and goodwill among the citizenry it needs to survive.

    Also this was a public space inside a building created before 9-11 made government buildings into retrofitted fortresses against terrorism. The atrium now only serves more as a beating heart where people are merely its life blood rushing through threadbare chambers without much of a reason or a place to linger. The building was not built with the customer needs designed in first and only then artfully crafting a comfortable stunning building with useful effective infrastructure around it. The problem is also the building was not built with longevity in mind. Great architecture merges ease of maintenance in with striking design to achieve longevity and timeless beauty. A building with a huge "easily accessible" open public space that encourages lingering is what was needed. A beautiful building that is easycheap to maintain has the longevity needed to become a cultural icon.

    This building failed on so many points. This building is not a beautiful timeless statement it is instead just cute. Pretty in the most trite sense defining its culture at the moment of completion. Puppies are cute. Human babies are often cute. New buildings like the Thompson Center taken in the context of their glory days are cute. But puppies grow up to be dogs. Human babies grow up to be harshly countenanced adults and cute buildings like this grow up to be costly out of current context testimonials to ego and the throw away culture of the moment that spawned them. Old cute buildings grow dated without grace, are resistant to evolutionary change and soon become an eye sore reminding all of the most superficial aspects of a past best forgotten. The Thompson Center has all these things in spades. The Thompson Center is the cutest building I’ve ever seen and maybe just maybe that is why its days on this Earth are numbered. Just an old autistic werewolf’s opinion.

    P.S. growing up I always wanted to be an architect which is why I care so much about buildings. I ended up being an IT Engineer. I love this channel. Thank you for everything you do here!