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Reinventing the Thompson Center: A research project into a modular, mixed-use destination

March 30, 2022

By Jillian Dexter and Daniel Massaro

A pandemic-inspired perspective drives two designers to look at resiliency and community building

This article first appeared as “Looking up” in Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 14.

The pandemic gave us a new perspective on buildings that are primarily used for one purpose—be it residential, office, or hotels. In many cases, we saw large blocks of space with a single function basically deserted during the pandemic.

When our daily behavior—work, shopping, dining, travel—was severely disrupted, these single program places suddenly had nothing to offer. They went unused. Downtown spaces in many cities, where office buildings rule, turned into virtual ghost towns overnight. That made us think, could we diversify building use to enhance social resiliency and connection to the community?

The James R. Thompson Center in downtown Chicago, Illinois, which was completed in 1985. (Architect: Helmut Jahn of Murphy/Jahn now called JAHN Architects)

In our research project we focused on one inefficient building, the James R. Thompson Center, also known as the State of Illinois Building in Chicago’s Loop. Designed by the late Helmut Jahn and completed in 1985, there’s nothing else quite like it in Chicago. It’s a post-modern marvel aesthetically speaking. But today it’s the subject of much debate.

It’s been called both “outrageous” and “wonderful” by design critics. Now, many consider it to be obsolete and unusable for its intended purpose to house government services and offices. Calls for demolition abound but are counterbalanced by cries from preservationists to save the Thompson Center as a striking example of our recent architectural past when postmodernism reigned. We found ourselves asking: Could it be reimagined? So, we undertook the conceptual design for a revamped Thompson Center.

Our design reinvents the Thompson Center as a mixed-use vertical community where people can live, work, and play. It is now a destination experience enticing visitors to experience the diverse building interwoven into downtown life. The revamped Thompson Center doesn’t lose its appeal at the end of the workday. Through adaptive reuse of the existing building to create flexible spaces on the interior—and the addition of a modular tower—we explored how to diversify the Thompson Center and turn into a bustling community.

How to change a local landmark

There are many elements to the design. They include:

Reinvent and add. The big idea was to reinvent the existing building and add on to it. We designed a tower to increase the building’s footprint and prominence, increase its square footage, and integrate residences.

Our conceptual design modifies the existing building to create more flexible space including an open all-season marketplace on the ground floor, which will leverage modular vendor stalls in the existing structural grid.

Edit interior use of the existing building. On the ground level, we proposed opening the space to create an all-season marketplace. We suggest modifying the remaining floorplates above to allow for mixed-use tenants to further diversify the use of the space and create a dynamic environment.

Add the tower. To increase the building’s overall square footage and allow for diverse programming, our design proposes to erect a structural grid frame following the existing structural grid of the building. This allows for modular construction, which will be efficient from a cost and material standpoint. It also allows for the tower to populate organically.

Add pods. We created pods—a flexible, mixed-use-friendly, modular building block that snaps into the building’s structural frame and new vertical structural grid. Pods come in a variety of flavors, each suited to a function—from retail and hospitality to space for education or health clinic. We can add more pods as needed, which allows us to adapt the existing space to fit different functions resulting in a dynamic building that is economically diverse. 

Our design reinvents the Thompson Center as a mixed-use vertical community where people can live, work, and play. It is now a destination experience.

By mixing the pod typology and varying them in construction, we can create a vertical community with a visually interesting facade. Destination spaces in the base building and tower will drive people to different areas and increase the foot traffic within this vertical community.

Break it, flip it, and integrate it. Inspired by the components we developed for the Thompson Center, we see an opportunity to apply modular construction on these vacant areas and develop them into mixed-use spaces to support businesses that communities need to thrive. So, we took our vertical community concept, broke it up into modules for mixed uses to serve the impacted neighborhoods, and scaled those models so they could be built on vacant lots throughout the city. We rotated our vertically oriented building grid to suit the shorter residential neighborhood scale. We broke the mixed-use community of the tower into blocks of smaller ecosystems, created smaller sections of pods, and adjusted the mix of pod types as needed.

We could leverage mixed-use vertical community concept and implement it at scale across neighborhoods in Chicago. We flipped our structural grid and made it scalable to residential neighborhoods.

Pods in the neighborhood

Chicago has space. There are empty lots concentrated on its south and west sides, many owned by the City of Chicago. In our research on the modular mixed-use community concept, we realized many city neighborhoods have suffered economically during the pandemic with businesses shuttering, resulting in empty lots and further resource drain. COVID-19 closures have an economic and social impact on Chicago’s neighborhoods, further deepening the disparity within the city. We thought our mixed-use, modular approach might help promote economic resiliency in city neighborhoods. We can create communities infused with vibrant mixed-used places by taking a modular approach while diversifying zoning and building typology. It allows for more local entrepreneurship and resiliency.

Developers or public agencies could deploy these pod sections in the communities that need services or space for startups and small businesses. They could bolster communities hit by hard times. These pod communities can be built “as you go.” which lowers the barrier to entry and risk for smaller developers and public/private partnership.

We designed a tower addition with a structural grid for the Thompson Center. The structural grid would allow us to mix pod types as needed.

Modular development in the neighborhood

Our conceptual research project theorizes that modular development via our pods has many potential benefits. They include:

Create micro-economies: Build small businesses in the neighborhood.

Provide access to necessary resources to all: Get rid of food deserts, expand healthcare reach, and increase access to educational programs.

Construction efficiency: Pod or modular construction allows for more efficiency in construction and reduction of material waste. Cost can be optimized for developers as well.

Opportunity: Allow entrepreneurs, developers, existing businesses, and the community to come together.

What we learned

This conceptual research project taught us about the limitations of specialized building types. It allowed us to investigate modular, mixed-use building types that build community resiliency. It reminded us that there is value in applying our passion and innovative ideas to society’s big challenges. We also learned that creativity can still flourish outside the traditional framework for collaboration.

The pandemic forced us to adopt new tools for shaping and sharing our ideas. It revealed technological horizons we hadn’t explored previously. We were able to experiment with new applications for sketching, modeling, documenting, and presenting our work. Our creative world got bigger, more connected, and more flexible. We must be able to harness technology to quickly explore and test robust solutions to successfully reimagine our downtown cores.

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  • Jillian Dexter

    Jillian is an interior designer in Chicago with more than ten years of experience designing compelling interior spaces. Her recent project experience includes workplace renovations, workplace studies, and mixed-use adaptive reuse projects.

    Contact Jillian
  • Daniel Massaro

    A mentorship leader, Daniel volunteers with the Ace Mentor Program and Canstruction, and he was a founding member of Forum 2227, a young professionals group in his office. His main responsibilities are with the Digital Practice support team.

    Contact Daniel
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