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The Thompson Center, An Urban Context Case Study with Proposed Solutions

Check out Thompson Center here, in Google Maps.

The Thompson Center is one of those buildings that the majority of the public (historic preservationist and citizen alike) define as “ugly”, “bug-like”, or my personal favorite “something that came down from outer space”. In reality is a monument to Post Modernist architecture, and its quite an architectural marvel. Within this blogpost I aim to make a case for it. You see, the city is entertaining the idea of selling it off to developers, so they can demolish and create more privatized, monetary enriching development. The preservationists are against it from a historical background, and the government is making an argument that its renovations and cost of maintenance are not worth the money. My presentation is about technological existing solutions that would help the Thompson Center be a more efficient building in terms of spatial organization and energy loads.

Before we continue exploring these solutions, I always find it crucial to study the history of place.

Prior to the Thomson Center this location housed the Sherman Hotel. That building in itself underwent five different iterations until its final closure and subsequent demolition. It was host to talented musicians which attracted the business of many socialites, mobsters and politicians alike.

Afterwards the Thompson Center was built. It’s function was to serve as a secondary capitol for the State of Illinois and consolidated 50 different Illinois State agency offices into one new building. It was to be a “peoples center” meaning an easily accessible and inviting place to do business with the state of Illinois – as well as shop and dine. It solidified this concept by becoming a major Transportation Hub connecting six different train lines (Blue, Brown, Green, Pink, Orange and Purple) within its walls.

There are many arguments for its preservation, my personal favorite reason is because it is a one of a kind architectural experience in the world. Whilst architecture requires functionality to justify its purpose, I think with this pragmatic thought American architecture is suffering from exploring itself and its limits. This building is a prime example of that thirst within the discourse in our nation. When built, it sought to break records and barriers in construction. Where is that energy in contemporary manifestations? Below are some plans and sections of the Thompson Center.

There are also some historical reasons to preserve the building, that satisfy the Standards of Preservation. This image explores some of those points:

For those who resist the sentimental value I explore some more pragmatic reasons to preserve this building for posterity. I believe that it is far more sustainable both physically (and historically), to enhance this building than it is to demolish it. Here are some arguments for it:

The main points are:

1- The Thompson Center is a major public asset. Chicagoans are no strangers to seeing their public assets sold to private investors who do not have the public’s general access and welfare in mind.

2- One of the largest atrium spaces in the world. Generating a solution that mitigates the energy load of this building would be a precedent for Adaptive Reuse and sustainability.

3- Represents the architectural identity of a bygone generation that Chicago is trying to sneakily erase because it clashes with its “Modern Architecture” touristic persona. We should not allow our governmental bodies to manufacture history.

Now, all of this is mighty fine and sentimental, but let’s talk about the problems and issues of this building that led to its existence being in contention.

The mainly reported issues of this building are its glass, HVAC, odors and green house effect.

1- The glass is a single paned, non insulate glass. Curved panels were used, which means that they are all custom and would be a nightmare, cost wise, to replace. The amount of glass provokes HVAC issues.

2- Speaking of HVAC, this building is completely open. The floors are not subdivided into zones so it is extremely hard to cool in the summer and warm in the winter. There is only one HVAC zone in this building and it is overworked because of the large atrium space and open floor plans.

3- Because of this openness there are a lot of odor issues that travel upwards through the building.

4- Because of the glass the sun gets magnified and interior heats gets amplified.

With the issues in mind I researched different possibilities that could enhance building performance at a reasonable cost. My strategies are as follows:

Fig. 1
*These are not designs just diagrams for ease of understanding.
Fig. 2
*These are not designs just diagrams for ease of understanding.

The first strategy is utilizing smart glass coating (Fig. 1 – example of specifications for adhesion here). By being able to control the amount of UV lights that comes into the atrium space HVAC loads are completely dropped. And because it is a coating, there is no cost to replace the uniquely customized rounded windows, simply the cost to coat them.

Another key strategy would be closing off sections to compartmentalize HVAC loads. As you can see in the drawing (Fig 2 pink spaces) demonstrates how you would start generating different HVAC zones. Alongside with partial demolition (Fig 2 red), which means creating vertical connections through voided forms to allow for micro atriums to form and generate different space configuration types, as well as new HVAC zones. From a business model standpoint more varied retail/office spaces could form, which could be used for different department types, and real estate financial model. An example would be WeWork type spaces – that would continue to perpetuate the “building for the people” concept.

An image explaining compartmentalized HVAC loads within a residential microcosm:

This strategy led me to more unique and transformative strategies to do alongside the aforementioned ones. Creating wind corridors to allow for passive cooling and natural air circulation (Fig. 1 shows in blue), as well as provide a heat exhaust (as hot air travels upwards). This would also allow for green space at these open pockets (Fig. 2 shown in green). This would be great way to utilize the preexisting green house effect condition to enable health and wellness within the building structure. Effectively, by creating this corridor of wind, you would also naturally move the otherwise stagnant air that holds the strong odors within the atrium space.

Below is are drawings that explain passive cooling in more detail:

Now. I couldn’t call myself a designer if I didn’t show you some mood boards of what these kind of interventions would look like:

This is the board of which this presentation was based of.

And, of course, my sources:

Would love to know your thoughts, fellow reader! The research for these solutions was incredibly fun and I really enjoy the problem solving aspect of this kind of work. Adaptive Reuse is something I am very passionate about – stay tuned for more research.


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