Results of Thompson Center Contest Show the Thompson Center is Doomed

Back toward the beginning of the Summer, we told you that the Chicago Architecture Center and the Chicago Architecture Club were holding a contest to come up with ideas for re-using, rather than razing, The Thompson Center — that beloved and behated former state office building lurking at 100 West Randolph Street like an awkward teen-ager in the shadows of a high school dance.

The best and brightest architecture minds in the world were invited to put forward plans “to give the building new life through restorative architecture while preserving its architecture and public character.” Sounds good to us. Until today. When the winners of the contest were announced.

The top three winners — and remember, these were the best of what was submitted — don’t have a ketchup packet’s chance at Wieners Circle of becoming a reality. I’m sure that the CAC and the CAC had great expectations. We all did. The results speak for themselves:

"Public Pool"  (Courtesy fo the Chicago Architecture Center)
“Public Pool” (Courtesy fo the Chicago Architecture Center)

Public Pool turns the Thompson Center’s iconic atrium into an exurban water park resort. No, seriously. It’s Great Wolf Lodge on the CTA. You can imagine a scene from a 1950’s Family Circus comic strip where the dad forgets that he has to submit an idea for an architecture contest the next day and lets little Billy take whack at it armed with a fresh pack of Crayolas. We’ve gone from smack-my-head territory deep into the dominion of smack-my-head-on-the-drafting-table land. If this ever gets built, we will be first in line to find out if there really is a secret chemical that turns pool water green if you pee in it.

"Offset: The Vertical Loop" (Courtesy fo the Chicago Architecture Center)
“Offset: The Vertical Loop” (Courtesy fo the Chicago Architecture Center)

Offset: The Vertical Loop looks like one of the hundreds of portfolio projects blindly e-mailed to us each week by earnest but completely untalented design students in places like India, Russia, and the Federated States of Micronesia. Being less bad than a public pool doesn’t make this good. And the description is straight out of an art school demo day: “Each floor is zoned, from public uses at the ground level to commercial above, along with private residence and vegetable gardens at the roof. Hanging plants in the atrium connect this new vertical neighborhood.” You know who loves to have their home right above a commercial property? Nobody. That’s why apartments over the White Hen 7-Eleven are so heavily discounted. We’ve done it. It sucks. It’s one of those utopian urban living scenarios imagined by people who think “Friends” was real, live in leafy suburbs, and don’t have retail stores in their basements.

"One Chicago School" (Courtesy fo the Chicago Architecture Center)
“One Chicago School” (Courtesy fo the Chicago Architecture Center)

One School Chicago is the only one of the three “winners” that is even remotely a worthy idea. But it gets so caught up in new age gluten-free polytheistic vagueness that it can’t even just be good. Instead of a plain-speaking, “Let’s make a school out of it” we get “…a new prototype public school focused on public policy and civic engagement for students in Chicago to learn, question, and ignite change.” How about we let the actual educators decide what to teach, instead of predestining a school to be “focused on public policy and civic engagement?” Clearly these people have never met, spoken with, or employed an average Chicago Public Schools student. The students don’t need “prototype” schools. They need to learn math, reading, writing, and how to reason their way out of a paper bag. Save the “ignition” for the north shore trust fund kiddies who will slide into a job when they get out of their well-funded diploma mills. Everyone agrees that downtown Chicago needs more good schools. What it doesn’t need is another private academy popping out unemployable 18-year-olds laden with big ideas, but without the language skills to articulate, “You want fries with that?”

We can’t help but feel bad for the CAC and the CAC. From the people who excitedly opened the mail to the committee that had to pick the winners of this loser contest to the scrivener who had to write the press release announcing the victors with a straight face. If you know any of them, give them a great big COVID-safe hug.

The bottom line: Take a bunch of pictures of the Thompson Center for your scrapbooks now. This one’s a goner.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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