It's open season on Chicago modernism


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Last month we featured an update on potential threats to Chicago's late modern architecture. The following Op-Ed was submitted to the Chicago Tribune on October 16, 2015 by Bonnie McDonald, president and CEO of Landmarks Illinois and Gunny Harboe, preservation architect and president of Docomomo US/Chicago. The Op-Ed was never published.

October 16, 2015

It's open season on Chicago modernism.

This week, the Cubs aren’t the only game in town. A spirited match in the unfriendly confines of architectural criticism wages on in what is an undeniably busy week for famous architects. Continuing the metaphor, this week’s game starts out with a strike against Helmut Jahn's Thompson Center. The Governor’s search for revenue is understandable, but posing demolition as part of a sale devalues the civic and cultural advances displayed in Jahn’s design.

View of the Thompson Center. Credit: Advance Indiana

Groundbreaking for its voluminous atrium reminiscent of monumental and bygone public spaces, Jahn forged a landmark. Though it's a place some people love to hate, the ire comes from aspects that can be alleviated through reinvestment and a reengineering of its systems. See the space for its opportunity as an energy generator with solar cell technology or the next trending hotel or condo project for Postmodern enthusiasts – yes, they are out there. The Thompson Center's eligibility for listing in the National Register of Historic Places was determined in 2009. A private market pro forma comes more in to balance with reuse when considering available incentives like the Federal Historic Tax Credit, the very incentive that generated $800 million in private investment in Illinois’ historic buildings last year.

Landmarks Illinois is proud of its track record of aligning historic places with visionary developers and we urge a thoughtful and responsible governmental process assessing the market for a sale and reuse scenario. Let the numbers show the options. See other big atrium spaces that have been remade at ASM International Headquarters near Cleveland and West Baden Springs Hotel in French Lick, Indiana. We're too quick to eschew incredible, but currently “dated” designs; with a chance to survive, our cultural tastes catch up. Case in point, Marina City is finally on its way to receive the Chicago landmark designation it deserves.

As Chicago hosts the best design minds in the world at the Chicago Architecture Biennial, we’ve chosen to greet them with a call for the demolition of not only Jahn’s significant work, but also Gene Summers’ McCormick Place and Malcolm X College. For McCormick Place, architecture critic Blair Kamin opines that we can right past wrongs by erasing this history. The result of such reparations against arguably Summers' most pivotal design for C.F. Murphy is to send to the garbage heap millions of dollars in publicly-financed and still viable natural resources embodied in that building. Can’t we coalesce architects around finding a design compromise that makes the “Berlin Wall” more transparent and installs a publicly-accessible green roof? Let’s not be so quick to dispose of our civic space, but welcome a thoughtful process to solicit designers, developers, and advocates to solve the problem.

We can end the series as winners instead of looking back on a set of preventable losses. We’re prepared to conduct adaptive reuse studies and develop pro forma reuse scenarios that are a win for citizens, the State, and City.

Bonnie McDonald
President & CEO
Landmarks Illinois

Gunny Harboe
Architect, Harboe Architects
President, Docomomo US/Chicago