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.


What It Means to Be an Architect

It’s a little bit more complicated than just designing buildings.

Illustration by Abstract Memento

When you start architecture at any college they will be quick to talk to you about Vitruvius. Vitruvius was an eloquent man with many talents, circa 1st century BC . He wrote “The Ten Books of Architecture”, which as far as we know, is the first series of architecture books in history. To be honest, I don’t think anyone really reads them in its entirety, just the first chapters, but in that first part, he states the key words to being the best architect you can be: As an architect it is your duty to know a little bit about everything, never pretending to know more than the actual masters in their craft, but enough to be competent, engaging and capable to intelligently contribute to a conversation if the subject matter were to arise.

This is indeed an ambitious creed, but one that has endured the test of time not only in the field of architecture, but as a constant personal goal. As an architecture student, you are trained to be a Master Designer. Not only must you learn and understand the concepts of the built environment but a way of problem solving that allows you to design from an entire building, to the smallest detail on a corner beneath a crawlspace. An architect is trained to be a designer of experiences, of moments, of a home, of place of worship, a place to play, a place to heal, of furniture, graphic design — all in all, you are trained to define, think, and solve design problems of all shapes and sizes. You aren’t taught a specific style, program or scale — you are taught to design everything and anything, and as your career progresses and you make your choices in life based on who you are — you find your niche and adjust your efforts accordingly. But out of school, you have to have the capability to do it all — in terms of design.

As architects in the modern age we learn how things are built by getting thrown into the deep end. Your first job will teach more about how to build things than any school you could ever pay for. The main reason for this is the act of building and the implications it may bring are 1000% directly correlated to your context. How you build in Miami is nowhere near how you build in California or in Denver or Savannah or San Juan, even if it’s the same country abiding by the same laws. I’ve been exposed to all the aforementioned markets, and while you can adapt your existing skills to the imperative of those places there is a definite and palpable learning curve due to many things like material price due to sourcing, climactic imperatives, client type, social imperatives, perception in luxury goods, market economy, and soil quality — to name a few.

Another reason to know a little bit about everything is because your role as an architect doesn’t stop at just designing. Architects are the coordinators, contact point and the ones that collate all the work and efforts of interior designer, engineers, client, contractor, manufacturers, consultants, and any other specialist relevant to the project. And then after all that we have to do construction administration to ensure the project is built as intended. How are we supposed to communicate the interests of all the stakeholders if we have zero grasps on what they do and how it affects everyone involved ?
The power we hold must be used responsibly to ensure the success of projects and keep happy customers. We have to know our history, the technology of the time, be tastemakers and connoisseurs of all things luxury and common goods alike, keep up with news and economy to understand the shifting values of prime material costs to be aware of how budgets may\ need to be adjusted, while also honing rhetoric and public speaking skills to deal with the backlash of when things go wrong. As the nucleus of the entire operation, you can imagine we definitely get “yelled at” a decent amount.

So in conclusion, architects need to know a bit of everything to be competent at all the different phases that our daily life incurs. Which if you’re passionate about what you do, every day will be exciting, fun, and full of unimaginable challenges.